Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Iconoclastic magazine Crikey says over half your news is spin.

As usual, there's more in the story but they don't spell it out. Now that the survey of news stories conducted by students at the University of Technology, Sydney, is out there, it's probably time to go into more detail.

The study "found that nearly 55% of stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations". This resembles a story a couple of months ago about how broadcast journalism takes content from print, and repurposes it. But it's in the repurposing that the devil detail lies.

What does "driven by" mean? Does it mean that a PR person contacts a journo and tells them about a story that the journo subsequently goes out and investigates? Does it mean the journo copies whole slabs of text from the press release? Or does it mean that the journo picks up names of people the PR provides (in the original email or on the phone) who are willing to talk, and talks to them?

I think there is a bit of difference between these scenarios.

This is what we need to know. If, for example, the journo simply copies whole slabs of text from a press release, and then talks to people lined up conveniently by the PR, then there's a problem.

If, on the other hand, a journo picks up the story and then goes and does a bunch of original research using his/her own contacts, or even searching out people to interview, then that's a slightly different proposition.

The UTS study does not make such a distinction, and it's a shame.

What's interesting in the Crikey story, tho, is the difficulties faced by the journalism students when trying to discover more information by talking to journalists.

Many journalists and editors were defensive when the phone call came. Who’d blame them? They’re busier than ever, under resourced, on deadline and under pressure. Most refused to respond, others who initially granted an interview then asked for their comments to be withdrawn out of fear they’d be reprimanded, or worse, fired.

Asking "hard questions of the media" is sort of the point, however. It's like for a journalist working on a contentious story where there are many important entities - government departments, large corporations - who are contacted repeatedly but refuse to answer questions.

Sometimes they refuse by simply not replying to emails. Follow up emails can also be totally ignored. Phone calls get routed through a media office where professional communicators are stationed whose sole purpose is to protect the corporate brand.

These things are frustrating, and probably have a lot to do with why journalists rely on PRs to summon up reliable, approachable contacts who will talk - today, now, immediately - about the subject at hand. Many won't.

So it's hard to feel sorry for the students, because the kind of obfuscation they faced while doing the survey is the kind of problem journalists can face in an average day at work.

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