News reporting in the age of Churnalism , based on Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. Flat Earth News. The previous news stories were all from 2006. The story initially appeared in local newspapers, then in national newspapers. It soon appeared on prominent websites such as the BBC.
The previous news stories were all from 2006. The story initially appeared in local newspapers, then in national newspapers. It soon appeared on prominent websites such as the BBC.
Before long it went international, and within 48 hours was reported in, amongst others, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Washington Post, and the Malaysia Star. It had been translated into Italian, German, Polish, Romanian, Dutch and Chinese.
But a few minutes of internet research turns up the following story from the previous World Cup, four years earlier.
And here's another story, from 2006. It's the same firm, and again features Simon Burgess’ name.
Davies suggests that the cause of the problem is the climate of financial cutbacks as a result of the competition between the huge profit-oriented companies that own the British news media.
1986: Rupert Murdoch moves his newspapers from Fleet Street to Wapping, in complete secrecy, and breaks the print unions.
This is the end of an era, the end of family-owned (and expensive to run) newspapers that prioritised journalism. They are replaced by corporate owners that prioritise profit.
The result of this corporate takeover and the move to Wapping was less resources for editors and increased profits for owners. The following figures are the pre-tax profits of Murdoch’s UK titles and the total staff employed before and after the move to Wapping (p.63).
Because newspapers employ considerably less journalists, these journalists face dramatically increased workloads. To make matters worse, in the digital age there is increasing pressure from managers to get stories published as quickly as possible. Davies quotes an internal BBC memo:
“We should be getting ‘breaking news’ up within 5 minutes.” (p.69)
“Getting up” here means publishing a one-line version of the story on the ticker, writing a four-paragraph summary of the story, and checking the story. Clearly under these circumstances, the “checking” will not be very effective.
As a result, journalists are rarely able to research stories in the way they used to. Instead, they rely on two main sources.
Davies commissioned a study by specialist researchers which found that 60% of news reports published over two weeks in the quality press “consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material” (p.52).
Needless to say, PR material is highly subjective by its very nature, and the BritishInsurance stories are a clear example of crude marketing.
The news industry's reliance on wire copy, with few journalists able to check stories from the wire, allows enterprising PR companies to access the world media if they can get their story accepted by an agency.
The reporting of the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 meeting disturbances in London was another good example of PR (in this case police statements) which attempted to subvert the truth in order to serve the interests of the organisation that published the statement.
Davies characterises the way modern journalism works with 9 satirical “rules of churnalism”. (p.114)
These 9 rules all fit into two major categories:
Rules 1-5: Cutting the costs
Rules 6-9: Increading the revenue
To qualify under this rule, stories should be both quick to cover and safe to publish.
Anything that requires tricky investigation (or indeed any investigation at all) is out of the question.
In practice, the safety of a fact doesn't necessarily have a relationship to its truth value. No matter how much evidence there is to prove something is true, even if that includes photographs and TV footage, a fact only becomes safe when it can be attributed to an official source.
This means that it is best to avoid running stories that might upset any individual, group, company or organisation that has the power to “hurt news organisations” (p.122).
Although it is sometimes vital that a journalist presents both sides of a story, such as when she is unable to uncover the truth, it is too often a strategy used by journalists and editors to protect themselves in controversial issues when they know there is a danger of upsetting a powerful interest group.
For example, journalists spent two decades nullifying the warnings of scientists on both global warming and the dangers of smoking in order to “give both sides”, i.e. presenting the interests of the oil and tobacco companies.
In contrast to the traditional approach of journalistic standards dictating content, the new media managers (the big corporations) are fundamentally motivated by profit, and will, to paraphrase Davies, tell anything they can sell (p.133).
The result is a serious decontextualisation of news reports that creates a bias against a full understanding of the truth.
Rule 6 suggests facts should be populist in their appeal; rule 8 suggests that ideas should also be. Davies quotes a memo written by Piers Morgan in 2003 while editor of the Daily Mirror:
“I'm afraid I misjudged how our readers would respond to the start of the war... One thing I won't be doing is sitting here defiantly telling myself how I'm right and they're all wrong. The readers are never wrong. Repulsive, maybe, but never wrong.“ (p.141)
This rule suggests that journalists should attempt to “sell the nation a heightened version of its own emotional state in its crudest possible form” (p.142).
Unlike the other rules, Davies claims that this one is compulsory, and that journalists who fail to adhere are “hunted down and attacked” (p.142).
Davies, Nick (2009) Flat Earth News. London: Vintage
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