Dysfunctional news media

4 January 2010 by Jennifer

Flat Earth News is a book by Nick Davies, about the state of the media in the years leading up to 2008 when he wrote it. Highly recommended for all activists!

Big thanks to Ciaran for telling me about it, and making it sound so intriguing that I went straight online to see if the library had it :-)

First of all I must say: if any of this interests you, and certainly if you’re in the habit of following news via any mainstream media, then time spent reading this book will not be wasted. It’s readily available; I got a copy from the library. It’s pretty gripping in places, with lots of real life stories.

Nick Davies is a journalist himself: “a Guardian man”, he says. The book focuses primarily on print media in the UK, but includes enough on TV, radio and other countries to show that similar patterns repeat there.

I’m going to start by quoting some largish chunks from the book, to lay out some relevant territory. (Bold bits added by me.) And then after that, I’ll say a few things I’ve been thinking about after reading it.

Then and now

Historically, the clearest threats to press freedom (i.e. the freedom to tell the truth) have come from outside of newsrooms; and they have tended to bring pressure to bear at the point of publication. The state did this through formal censorship, reinforced by secrecy, legal restraint and physical intimidation. Media owners, as we have seen, did this through direct and sustained interference. Both threats remain, albeit in more subtle form than in the past.

But now we are deep into a third age of falsehood and distortion, in which the primary obstacles to truth-telling lie inside the newsrooms, with the internal mechanics of an industry which has been deeply damaged. The problem now is not merely at the point of publication but also at the earlier and even more important stage of gathering and testing raw information. (p22-23.)

To put things in perspective, the author estimates a percentage of problems which nowadays come from owners’ and advertisers’ interference:

Journalists with whom I have discussed this agree that if you could quantify it, you could attribute only 5% or 10% of the problem to the total impact of these two forms of interference. (p22.)

So what’s the big problem nowadays, if not deliberate interference?

It’s time, and behind that, money.

More stories, less time

In preparing the book, the author commissioned some research from a team at Cardiff University. They estimate that since 1985, staffing levels on the national papers have slightly fallen, whereas the amount of editorial space they’re filling has trebled. (p63.)

At the same time, local papers and local news agencies were going out of business, depriving the national papers of the network of local journalists who in past times would have been feeding stories in.

… the Cardiff researchers surveyed national news reporters. Two-thirds of them said they were now producing more stories; and two-thirds of them said they were now doing less checking. … One told them: ‘Newspapers have turned into copy factories. This leaves less time for real investigations, or meeting and developing contacts. The arrival of online editions has also increased demand for quick copy, reducing the time available for checking facts.’

Another, from a different paper, said: ‘I think the time available to be thorough has decreased … The main consequence of that is that if things require lots of work, they are less likely to be embarked on.’ … And another: ‘I insist on making at least two check calls on every story, but this is becoming increasingly difficult to do, because of time constraints.’ (p64.)

The health editor of the Times, Nigel Hawkes, captured the view of many: ‘We are churning stories today, not writing them. Almost everything is recycled from another source … Actually knowing enough to identify the stories is no longer important. The work has been deskilled. (p59.)

The author asked a young graduate to write a diary of “one week in his working life on a regional daily tabloid”. At the end of the week, the young reporter counts up:

Number of stories: 48 (9.6 per day)
People spoken to: 26
People seen face to face: 4 out of 26
Total hours out of office: 3 out of 45.5 (p59.)

The author comments:

This is life in a news factory. No reporter who is turning out nearly ten stories every shift can possibly do his or her job properly. No reporter who spends only three hours out of the office in an entire working week can possibily develop enough good leads or build enough good contacts. No reporter who speaks to only twenty-six people in researching forty-eight stories can possibly be checking their truth. (p59.)

Recycled stories

The researchers also chose two random weeks and analysed all the stories in the Times, Independent, Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, to find out how many were original.

At the end of this unique investigation, they came up with a striking finding – that the most respected media outlets in the country are routinely recycling unchecked second-hand material. … this tends to come from two primary sources; wire agencies like the Press Association, and public-relations activity which is promoting some commercial or political interest.

… only 1% of wire stories which were carried by Fleet Street papers admitted the source. Most carried misleading bylines, ‘by a staff reporter’ or even by a named reporter who had rewritten the agency copy. The denial of PR input is at least as thorough… ‘We found many stories apparently written by one of the newspaper’s own reporters that seem to have been cut and pasted from elsewhere.’ (p52-53.)

Many weren’t properly checked before being recycled:

The researchers went on to look at those stories which relied on a specific statement of fact and found that with a staggering 70% of them, the claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. Only 12% of these stories showed evidence that the central statement had been thoroughly checked. (p53.)

And these percentages left out the tabloids and various other sources of even lower quality:

These were simply the stories that were being presented by the best daily newspapers in the UK as an account of the most important or interesting events in the country over the preceding twenty-four hours. (p53.)

Relying on agencies

One common practice is to use something “off the wire”, i.e. from an agency such as Reuters or the Press Association (PA).

As one national newspaper correspondent told the Cardiff researchers: ‘Checking information has decreased, and what is worse, it is not expected by the news desk. I cannot tell you the number of times I am told to “take it off the wires and knock it into shape“, which is just terrible.’ … A section editor on a national daily told them: ‘We’ve always been reliant on wire copy, but we use it a hell of a lot more these days. It’s quite common for us to cut and paste a story off PA, renose it a bit to mask where it’s come from and then put it out there as our own.’ (p75.)

But the agency may not have checked it, either:

PA reporters told me they routinely start the day by writing stories from press releases and other newspapers and, since they may do this at six or seven in the morning, they cannot possibly find anybody to check them with. One of their senior editors agreed that this happens. He had previously worked for a regional newspaper and told me ‘We used to take what we were given from PA and accept it as fact but once I went to work there, I realised that we couldn’t.’

Another agency man told [the Cardiff researchers]: ‘My father was a journalist for Reuters for twenty-five years, and the working conditions were completely different. Stories would take much longer to put together, but when they were, they were more likely to be accurate and close to the truth.’ (p82.)

The author sums up in a line:

Journalism without checking is like a human body without an immune system. (p51.)

Truth and truth

And when you’re using agency sources, there’s another vital missing link: Reporting accurately what someone says is not the same as reporting the truth.

PA is a news agency, not a newspaper. It is not attempting, nor does it claim to be attempting, to tell people the truth about the world. As its editor, Jonathan Grun, put it to us: ‘What we do is report what people say and accurately.’ The PA reporter goes to the press conference with the intention of captruring an accurate record of what is said. Whether what is said is itself a truthful account of the world is simply not their business. … Sleuthing, Grun told us, is not PA’s role. ‘Our role is attributable journalism – what someone has got to say. What is important is in quote marks.’ If the Prime Minister says there are chemical weapons in Iraq, that is what the good news agency will report. (p83.)

No-one was watching

Moreover, the agencies don’t have enough journalists any more to properly cover the whole country, so important stories get missed entirely – e.g. from local governments, courts and even Parliament. No-one’s watching!

When I looked into this in the late 1990s, I found a criminal trial which had been running for three months at Leicester Crown Court, without a word of national coverage, even though it had unearthed Scotland Yard’s involvement in unlawfully importing Yardie gangsters from Jamaica who were used as informants and effectively given a licence to commint crime in London. (p78.)

As to Government:

Chris Moncrieff, who has covered Parliament for PA since 1962, told us … that PA now covers far fewer political meetings and speeches than it used to and relies far more on government press releases. ‘They’ve won’, he said. ‘If they put out in advance a copy of the speech, then we will not go. We now print what they want us to print. We go to far fewer meetings or not at all.’ (p80.)

And more…

I must say I finished the book thinking “What’s the point of reading a newspaper ever again? Most of what’s in it can’t be trusted anyway”.

There’s a lot more to it, which I haven’t cited here: the dynamics of which stories are likely to be chosen for print and which ignored; the money poured into public relations companies nowadays, and what they do; the success of organisations like Greenpeace in shaping stories; and a series of fascinating “case study”-type chapters, looking at different newspapers, different stories etc.

(Some of the stories are covered in even more depth at the web site connected with the book, www.flatearthnews.net.)

But what I found particularly illuminating was that whole scenario I’ve been describing via the quotes above: less and less time to research, understand or check the facts.

My own little case study

As I was reading, I kept thinking of that story in the Guardian back in October, reproducing some of the dodgy stats from Graham Badman’s work.

Now doesn’t that look like a perfect case study of the kind of thing Nick Davies talks about in the book?

  1. Practically the whole story is “Some people said some stuff”.

    select committee told
    MPs have been told.
    he said.
    Badman … called for
    Badman told the MPs
    he said.
    He said
    he said.
    Barry Sheerman … said
    He asked
    Johnson said
    Badman said 
    Fiona Nicholson … has said
    she said.
    Ed Balls … has said 

    And no sign of any attempt to determine whether any of their statements might be true.

  2. A wrong fact:

    The review was commissioned to investigate whether the number of children known to social care in some local authorities was disproportionately high relative to the size of their home educating population.

    Nope. Mr Badman did end up producing some (questionable) figures about that, but the actual terms of reference of his Review were considerably wider:

    Terms of reference

    The review of home education will investigate:

    • The barriers to local authorities and other public agencies in carrying out their responsibilities for safeguarding home educated children and advise on improvements to ensure that the five Every Child Matters outcomes are being met for home educated children;

    • The extent to which claims of home education could be used as a ‘cover’ for child abuse such as neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude and advise on measures to prevent this;

    • Whether local authorities are providing the right type, level and balance of support to home educating families to ensure they are undertaking their duties to provide a suitable full time education to their children;

    • Whether any changes to the current regime for monitoring the standard of home education are needed to support the work of parents, local authorities and other partners in ensuring all children achieve the Every Child Matters outcomes. (Badman Review, Annex A.)

    (To what degree any of that reflects the purpose of commissioning the report is also open to debate… but either way, the Guardian’s description seems to be sheer guesswork.)

  3. A misleading framing:

    The committee is investigating the review after a backlash from parents who say they have been stigmatised as more likely to be child abusers.

    It would be rather more illuminating of the true context to say “parents who have reviewed Badman’s statistics and demonstrated them to be wrong wrong wrongety wrong, i.e. not facts“.

  4. They missed the story “Mathematical blooper exposed at the Select Committee; bloke paid large amounts of money by the Government doesn’t understand his own stats”.

So, given all that…

  • It seems extremely unlikely that Jessica Shepherd had read the Badman Review herself – or she’d have known, for example, what it was meant to investigate.

  • It seems extremely unlikely that she’d watched the Select Committee Enquiry herself – or she’d have known, for example, that Graham Stuart had taken Mr B to task about his dodgy stats at the Enquiry.

To sum up: the story shows no sign of having been written for the purpose of telling the truth.

It did forward the Government’s agenda and fill up some space in the paper, though. :-/

I wonder… if Jessica Shepherd even worked on the story at all – or if someone else stuck her name on it.

I wonder… who put which words of the article together at which points. Maybe it was based on a Govt press release, plus an Education Otherwise press release for Fiona’s quote? Maybe it was cobbled together at the Guardian, or maybe before that at the Press Association or Reuters?

Implications and possibly opportunities

I think this territory is important for activists to know and understand.

For one thing, it’ll give us a more realistic perspective on what we can expect from the Press.

Nick Davies again:

Most of the time, most journalists do not know what they are talking about. Their stories may be right, or they may be wrong: they don’t know. … They [now] work in structures which positively prevent them from discovering the truth. (p28.)

But also, there are opportunities here.

It’s not that I want journalism to be compromised like it is. In the case of the Children, Schools & Families Bill, and the plan to interfere with non-school education, I think we’d be infinitely better off with a Press which had time to find out and understand what was really happening.

(Or, failing that, at least we could do with something like the Center for Public Integrity, an independently funded organisation for investigative journalism in the States – also mentioned in the book.)

And the same is true for the world in general: truth is just generally helpful in doing good in the world, and lies generally are not.

But as long as the media does work that way, we should be learning how to take advantage of it like the other “players” do. Why shouldn’t it be our press releases that find their way in?

(Well, OK, one answer to that is it’s more risky for the Press to print things which go against current “received wisdom” – that’s another thing that the author talks about – but still, there are things we could say that wouldn’t hit that filter.)

Here’s another quote from that young journalist’s diary, from the book. Remember, this is about working on a regional daily paper:

Come in at eight to find the desk asking for a lead story, two 60-line basements [for the foot of a page] and 100 lines of nibs [news in briefs]. And they have no leads. I usually find some stories on my weekend off, but I’ve had a horrible cold. They tell me to check progress with a building being knocked down in the centre of town. They like stories with pictures, because they fill more space. I phone the developer and the council and turn it into a story. I take my first ever lunch break, wander the streets, copying down details of posters advertising car-boot sales, meditation evenings, whatever. Back in the office, I start turning them into stories. The desk panic because they still have no front-page lead. They steal an old story off the sports desk …

Then they tell me to do the Smilies: every day, on page seven, we run three happy, smiling stories, to make the readers feel good, complete with pics. No leads. I call my mum, who lives nearby, and she reads out bits from another local paper. I turn them into Smilies.

A real story walks in the front door: a young woman who has had her children taken into care because they say she has learning disabilities so can’t make a decent mum. She is desperate, been standing in the rain waiting for the doors to open. I tell her I’ll call her. I know I won’t; the desk aren’t interested. … No leads at all. I recycle some old stuff from my notebook and download a few upcoming events off the council website. (p56-57.)

Papers like that probably aren’t going to be interested in the politics we’d like them to report. But a couple of phrases stick in my mind.

They like stories with pictures, because they fill more space.

happy, smiling stories, to make the readers feel good, complete with pics.

Does anyone else see an opportunity here for some awareness-raising of non-school education? I can’t help wondering whether we could be in our local papers almost as often as we like, with very little effort, just by making a point of taking a few good-quality pix whenever we do anything interesting.

OK, not every child will want to have their photo in the paper, and not every family is prepared to risk bringing the attention of the Local Authority upon them in these times of prejudice and ultra vires practice. But still… remember the picnics with the bubble-blowing?

As for queer activism, I imagine local papers may not be quite as open to that, what with homophobia/biphobia and all; but still I’m pondering the use of photos in helping to get more bi news into Gay Times, Diva or the Pink, or any queer activism into the mainstream papers. Remember BiCon 2002 and the pix in Diva? or BiCon 2003 and the pix in the Big Issue?

And a last word

yeah, so I recommend reading this book :-)

Linky index…
Top of document
Then and now
More stories, less time
Recycled stories
Relying on agencies
Truth and truth
No-one was watching
And more…
My own little case study
Implications and possibly opportunities
And a last word

6 thoughts on “Dysfunctional news media”

  1. Brilliant post, Jennifer. Glad to know there is a book that documents what we have all been suspecting for a long time.

  2. Dan Gardner in his book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear comes to much the same conclusion as to why the media print lots of stories about worrying, unusual events leading people to feel more at risk than would be reasonable.

  3. Hi! Only just discovered your blog. This seems a very good idea. It’s occurred to me when reading mainstream articles in the past on HE. When I think how much time I must have spent reading, talking, and thinking about some of the issues involved with HE, clearly it’s unlikely a journalist will have the time to get their head around it if it’s not an area of interest. You’d grab a quote from the DCSF, a quote from EO, and knock out the article. If they see certain individuals question the stats, they’re not likely to have the time to get their head around it all…

    So yes, positive stories about happy families going about their lives would be wonderful! There also seems a tendency in the mainstream press to think, ‘we’ve covered the HE thing’, and not want more articles on it even though it’s very much still an issue for us. But happy articles all over the country about what we’re all up to, people might start thinking more about it. OFSTED under criticism, bullying is rife, standards dumbed down, stress, expulsions, budget cuts, etc etc. Then, family off to museum for the day, or to play in the park for the day, or all the other exciting things HE families can do! Quite a contrast…

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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