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Spinning the media: the editors fire back. Or don't.
Australian Centre for Independent Journalism's Wendy Bacon and Sasha Pavey
AUSTRALIAN JOURNALISM, FUTURE OF JOURNALISM, SPINNING THE MEDIA
The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism wrote to the editor of
each newspaper asking for an interview. We sent them the findings for their
newspaper and an explanation of how we did the snapshot survey.
The idea was to give the editors a chance to view their paper's results:
the percentage of articles that were PR driven, the percentage that were
not only PR driven but lacked any additional work by the journalist, and a
rank out of 10 so that each editor could gauge how they fared in comparison
to the rest. Crikey and the ACIJ felt that it was only fair the editors had
a chance to respond before publication and also, to defend their papers.
Just four of the 10 editors agreed to be interviewed, three from News
Corporation. No Fairfax editor agreed to be interviewed.
The reactions to our invitations for comment ranged from dismissive to
enraged. Some editors engaged in a flurry of correspondence with the ACIJ,
but made it clear that the contents of those conversations were not for
publication, so unfortunately we can't share them with you.
The editors interviewed were Chris Mitchell, The Australian's editor in
chief, Courier Mail editor, David Fagan, editor of The West Australian
Brett McCarthy and Hobart Mercury editor Gary Bailey. Editor of The Daily
Telegraph Garry Linnell was too busy to do the interview or to nominate
anyone to do it on his behalf. The editor of The Financial Review Glenn
Burge, The Age editor Paul Ramage and Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel, all
declined to be interviewed.
The editor of the Adelaide Advertiser Melvin Mansell was not available.
Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray requested some evidence of the
findings. We sent him two extensively researched examples. His comments on
these two examples are included in other stories in which they are dealt
with specifically. Fray then declined an interview unless we sent him every
example. We declined to do this. Across all newspapers, this involved
hundreds of examples. Our timeframe did not allow a separate examination of
every article published in each edition that week. Fray then declined to be
interviewed but made this comment:
"It is difficult to make informed comment when we have not been given the
details of the examples you and your team cite. I do not fully understand
your reluctance to give out the other examples. We are, of course,
concerned by your allegations but without seeing the examples I cannot
comment on the veracity of your claims.
"In general, the Herald, more than any other newspaper, stands for serious
journalism and a has rigorous approach to marking special reports as such
and interrogating the flood of PR material which infects our industry.
"Are we perfect? Obviously not. No media outlet is, and we should be held
to account just as we hold others to it."
Of all the editors interviewed for this investigation, Mitchell was the
only editor to take the results of his paper in stride. Unlike Fagan,
McCarthy and Bailey, Mitchell was not surprised at the amount of PR-driven
material in his paper. He goes as far as to say that in the news section of
The Oz, he thought it would be 100%. The full interview with Mitchell is
published in a separate item below.
All of the editors disputed the ‘no significant work done by
The editors agreed on several fronts.
All agreed that the PR machine has grown, particularly over the past five
years, and that spin is now so pervasive it is impossible to avoid and at
times, impossible to overcome. However, they didn't think that this growth
in PR has affected the quality or practice of journalism in their papers.
As McCarthy would say, news is news. But do readers care where it comes
More specifically, editors said that the business and police rounds were
the most PR imbued. Fagan had this to say:
"... one of the changes in stock market reporting requirements over the
last decade, the requirement of companies to continually disclose, which is
good for shareholders but it also means that its virtually, difficult if
not impossible to interview people in listed companies about affairs in
that company because anything they tell you needs to be on the stock
exchange record. The consequence of that is for people to tend to say well
we just want to get PR people to manage our relationship with the media. So
now company executives s are well schooled in talking to the media and will
run what they want to say past the PR person first."
Penetrating the police media unit is also difficult and journalists have
had to find ways around it using alternative sources and Freedom of
Information requests. In other words, what you and I might call good
old-fashioned journalism. This on the subject from Mitchell:
"I think the police have been insidious in trying to control the
relationship between individual journalists and police, so the tradition I
grew up with of journalists going to the pub with cops is non-existent at
the moment. And the police, more than any other organisation are driving
everything through police media. I think it’s a bad practice and I rail
against it in the office all the time. I’m trying very hard to get people
to emulate people like Cameron Stewart who don’t go through police media
but, of course, that’s why he’s getting prosecuted and been under
investigation by the Australian Federal Police two or three times in the
last two years."
To follow is a snapshot of the interviews we conducted with the four
editors who agreed to go over the results:
The West Australian -- Brett McCarthy. Interviewed by Flint Duxfield:
On not having a problem with his journalists relying on PR for story
"PR companies have grown to the point where they provide us with an
enormous amount of information on a daily basis. This information is
assessed and judged on its news value alone. If a story originated from a
PR company and appeared in the newspaper it did so because of its news
merits ... we would be remiss in our duties if we ignored it just because
it comes from a PR company.
… if it’s news it’s news, it doesn’t matter where it’s come
… We're judging it on news value alone. When stuff is being judged, it's
being judged purely on its news value. The people that are judging it may
not even know at the time if it's been generated by a press release or not,
they just judge if it's a decent story."
On the alleged increase in pressure in the newsroom on journalists in
"I started my career in afternoon newspapers, that’s how afternoon
newspapers moved then, you had an hour-by-hour filing deadline.
"I don’t see that things have changed that much, the online filing
component take you back a bit to that kind of routine. It’s no excuse for
not doing the proper research on the story. When we go to press we have to
accept that we won’t know everything that we would always like to know
about what we write. But there’s an old saying in journalism. If in
doubt, leave out, it’s an important principle."
Read the full interview transcript here.
The Hobart Mercury -- Gary Bailey. Interviewed by Alex Taylor:
On being surprised at his paper’s result:
"Very, very surprised … I did my own survey of The Mercury from the 9-11
September and putting on my blackest of black hats, I could only come up
with 51 story leads which might have been driven by PR."
"Not including international or overseas or AAP content."
"You’ve got to get the context, the imputation of the survey is that
[PR-driven journalism] is a bad thing."
"I’m the first to confess that these things [unchecked PR] do go through
… for instance, there was a story on Bank West which was just a straight
re-write [of a media release]."
On staff cuts:
"Last year The Mercury has reduced staff by 10 full-time equivalent people
mainly in sub-editing [14 production staff] and we’ve lost one general
reporter and one sports reporter but I am delighted to say staff has
responded to the challenge and we’re more efficient than ever: I think
our papers are better [for the reduced staff size], as far as our reporting
staff go, we zero in on the stories we think are important and more
tailored to our audience."
On the fact that it the issue is different for a smaller, locally focused
"I would have some very cogent arguments for our local [content] -- very
small stories that are basically public service announcements, an awful lot
of public service announcements are in our paper."
"We’re not relying on PR more and more, the great majority of our content
is local and event-driven PR would be important, but we encourage people to
ring the paper and alert us to stories. We have to rely on PR, it’s how
businesses and organisations communicate what is important to them."
Read the full interview transcript here.
The Courier Mail -- David Fagan. Interviewed by Sasha Pavey:
On the relationship between PR and the media:
"Spin is so ubiquitous that if you are a big mainstream news organisation
covering the news of the day as well as breaking your own news, you’re
always going to end up dealing with a big chunk of what you do is coming
through a PR machine of some sort."
On his paper's result of 27% of articles relying on PR with no significant
work by the journalist:
"… Reliance (on PR) may not be the right word because sometimes it’s
the intrusion of PR in the stories. I think reliance would be the wrong
word. I think PR would have an influence on just about every story we cover
now. You cannot ring even a lowly member of parliament now without there
being a PR person involved. You cannot ring a very small listed company any
more without a PR person being involved in the transaction. Sometimes you
can’t even cover a court case without a PR person sidling up to you
saying look I just want you to understand this from the point of view of my
client. So it’s everywhere."
On the nature of PRs:
"My experience over a long time in journalism is that PR people want to
build up the role they can take in creating a story, and they want to build
up the importance of what they do to their clients and potential clients,
and often they want to build up their role to the journo … so I’d take
that with a grain of salt."
Read the full interview transcript here.