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‘Good journalism isn’t dead. It’s terribly ill’

By Angelica Jopson on July 3, 2008 9:39 pm

THERE’S A BLACK cloud hanging over the head of the fourth estate and it is smothering journalism.

Surely, and not slowly.

It’s PR that Nick Davies, award-winning investigative reporter and author of Flat Earth News, is talking about here. He believes public relation officials have an alarming degree of control over media content today.

A Cardiff University study shows the average reporter fills three times more news space than in 1985. So journalists are under pressure to produce more copy, and often recycle reports to meet deadlines.

Press ownership is at the heart of this trend, Davies said, and media giants are more concerned with checking their bottom line than checking facts.

“This injected commercialisation is killing the logic of journalism,” he said at a Westminster Media Forum conference in London on PR and Journalism – Government and Health Sector Media Relations.

The Cardiff research, which analysed 2,000 news stories, found more than 80 per cent of the items were composed from second-hand sources. Also, only 12 per cent had been checked for accuracy.

The way the news industry functions now, journalists do not take the time to research the press releases that land on their desks. “Instead of being news gatherers we are becoming information processors,” said Davies, who won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 1999 and the Europe Prize: Journalism for a Changing World in 2004.

So the model of the press as public watchdog is being undermined. Worse, this ‘cut-corner’ approach to filling up news space is resulting in a press that can be easily manipulated – and often misleads the public.

The conference also highlighted the uneasy relationship between the media and the government, projecting it as a particular roadblock to good journalism. Political communication veteran David Hill said while everyone tries to influence the news agenda, the way in which the media sees the government is a cause for concern.

“The media’s attitude shows assumptions that the government is without ethics,” said Hill, who was Tony Blair’s director of communications till 2003, “and that political figures are only in it for private gain.”

This mindset coupled with the journalistic belief that “only bad news is news at all” has kept the government on the backfoot. But gloomy headlines rake in more profit, and Hill said he doesn’t see a truce being struck till journalists show a willingness to be balanced.

“At the moment,” he said, “there is no incentive for the media to change and no reason for the government to play along.”

While some press offices may be benign, Davies said, it is the structure of the news machine that is allowing their views to be published unquestioned. “Even honest PR makes selections for us,” he said. “We should source it ourselves, we should decide.”

The rise of the internet means more people read news online, which is not profitable for corporations. This has led to job cuts. Which, in turn, has put pressure on reporters to file more copy is less time, and Davies said journalists need to demand more time and more space. Every time they do that, a battle is won.

“Good journalism isn’t dead, it’s just terribly ill,” he said. “But it’s worth fighting for.”

Angelica Jopson is a writer at Interjunction. She can be reached at angelica.interjunction@googlemail.com

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