In previous posts I’ve been looking at why the mainstream media in the UK routinely omit stories on certain subjects while so often failing to report accurately, in a balanced way, on the stories which do make it to the public. Nick Davies book, Flat Earth News, provides perhaps the final pieces in the jigsaw to explain why this is.
To the factors I’ve discussed in previous posts, Nick Davies’ book adds commercialisation and ignorance. A full list of the ten factors is presented below, but first a look at what Nick Davies says in Flat Earth News.
The impact of commercialisation
News reporting is affected far more strongly by commercial logic than by commercial influence. It’s about how costs can be cut and profits increased. It started with the death of News Chronicle newspaper in 1960 and reached its nadir on 25th January 1986 when Rupert Murdoch conquered Fleet Street by moving the newspapers to Wapping and breaking the print unions. The unions were the last barrier to those who “thought greatly about commerce and casually about journalism.”
Between 1985 (the year before Murdoch took over) and 2005, the time journalists had to find and check stories had been cut by 66%. This was caused by staff cuts and a simultaneous expansion in the amount of newspaper pages. A similar thing happened at the BBC. Staff numbers were reduced further as they went to 24hrs news. By 2007, Mark Thompson had removed a further 500 journalists and half of the remaining 1,200 staff in Factual and Learning.
An academic study undertaken for Flat Earth News analysed the content of four of the ‘quality’ papers (The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Independent) and the Daily Mail as the leading mid-market paper and found that:
- 70% of news stories came from wire sources, mainly the Press Association. (For television news programmes the figure was 65%)
- 54% of news stories came from public relation (PR) sources. (A recent study of Australian newspapers found exactly the same thing)
- 41% of the wire stories contained some PR influence
- Only 12% of news stories were generated by the paper itself. The researchers stated that “meaningful independent journalist activity is the exception”
The wire agencies have been subjected to the same commercialisation as the news outlets. This has led to continuing staff cuts which in turn has led to dramatic drops in court reporting, parliament and local government affairs. Parliament and local government now pretty much dictate what is, and what is not, reported via their press releases.
Wire agencies are not staffed by journalists. A journalist’s mission is to tell the truth – the wire agency’s is not. They don’t check the facts thoroughly. Despite this, the BBC uses wire agency content as a confirmed single source, broadcasting their stories without properly establishing the accuracy.
Another symptom of commercialisation is speed. The BBC has increasingly put speed ahead of accuracy since it launched its 24hr news channel and online news service and started to compete with Sky and ITV. There are incredibly tight targets for getting ticker tapes on screen followed by paragraphs on the website, all of which excludes the possibility of proper fact-checking.
The job of public relations agencies is to represent the interests of their paying clients. The distortions within the information they feed in to the media will range from omission of unflattering facts through to total fabrication and psychological manipulation. [Adam Curtis’ documentary Century of the Self (possibly still on YouTube) and Stuart Ewes’ book PR! A Social History of Spin discuss how PR campaigns have fundamentally changed society over the last century]
Many modern journalists, barred from traveling to pursue stories (too expensive and time consuming), and pressured to churn out numerous stories a day, perhaps understandably lap up the stories given them by the PR companies. Sometimes these stories are easy to spot – the launch of a film or book perhaps, but often it is a hidden hand. Maybe the sources for each news story should be stated like the ingredients on food products? It’s interesting to note that during the brief period of American history when the Government was more powerful than business, Franklin D Roosevelt broadcast Public Service TV programmes to educate citizens to identify where business-funded public relations campaigns had influenced newspaper stories.
In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies discusses how most of the time journalists “don’t know and don’t care”. They’re happy to propagate the views of successive governments even when they are wrong. Examples on heroin, crime, ‘bobbies on the beat’, education, Chernobyl and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was presented to the world as the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq) can be found on the Flat Earth News website here.
Nick Davies book provides perhaps the final pieces in the jigsaw to answer the following questions, and many others like them, about omission, balance and distortion in the mainstream media:
- Why do the ‘quality’ newspapers and TV news channels so rarely investigate and report institutional child abuse?
- Why do they churn out sensational stories affecting relatively few people while ignoring fundamental issues which affect every single person in society, particularly those affecting the lives of women, young people, children and ‘the poor’? [some analysis of the BBC News at 10 here. Posts on the lack of coverage of the Steubenville High School rape case here]
- Why does the BBC continually bend reality to fit the incumbent Government’s view? [analysis of reporting on the NHS by Oliver Huitson here and by Skwawkbox blog here]
- Why are corporations, institutions and governments so often allowed to control news stories about them and their activities?
The factors are:
- Commercialisation; cutting costs to increase profits. Leading to…
- Not enough journalists
- And a focus on speed over accuracy driven by competition between news rivals
- …All leading to a reliance on news wire agencies that do not check stories and do not harvest news widely due to the commercialisation of their own industry
- …And the filling of the news gap by public relations agencies and lobbyists whose job it is to distort the truth in the interests of their clients.
- Journalists, editors and other decision makers not having enough expertise in many subjects.
- A lack of diversity within the media workforce. For example, 63.7% of senior managers on the BBC news staff are men as reported in this post. There are also issues with socioeconomic, ethnic and disability diversity throughout the industry. [Joseph Harker presents some industry statistics in this article]
- Sponsor interference/conflict of interest. Nick Davies writes that “New owners of the mass media have shifted their priority from propaganda to commerce… 5-10% of the UK problem is attributable to owners and advertisers.”, but the 2012 Shadows of Liberty documentary (possibly still on YouTube) shows what happened when a handful of global corporations bought out the US media, e.g. CBS reports on Nike’s far-East sweat shops suppressed so as not to upset financial interests between CBS and Nike; the CIA turning a blind eye to crack cocaine importation from Nicaragua which was destroying the black communities in Los Angeles (see the story of journalist Gary Webb); and Rupert Murdoch ensuring Bush gained power and that US citizens supported the war in Iraq. But how much does this happen in the UK? Or are media shortcomings always explained by the other factors in this list? The government sanctioned BBC license fee does create a conflict of interest for the BBC’s news reporting – but is that really the cause of omission and distortion where it exists? [the Wiki page on concentration of media ownership discusses the global situation]
- Inability to take feedback and improve. Media organisations, like organisations in general, have a tendency to be defensive or evasive when receiving complaints, feedback and enquiries. This relates in part to their lack of accountability. As a public body, the BBC are accountable, but in a very different way to other public bodies. [a post on the problem with BBC Freedom of Information requests here]
- Legal threats/ actual litigation. The UK media has sometimes suppressed stories as a result of injunctions or legal threats from powerful people and organisations. The truth has come out eventually (hasn’t it?) but there have been delays in reporting, such as with Trafigura and its dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire which are not in the public interest. The recent Newsnight/Lord McAlpine/Twitter debacle has probably made media outlets more fearful of publishing accusatory stories about powerful figures and organisations, but the fact is that if the BBC had enough good journalists who were able to check stories (point 2 above), and if they hadn’t put speed ahead of accuracy (point 3), then it would not have made such a fundamental misjudgement in using third party (related to point 5, although it was not a wire agency in this case) story which was fundamentally wrong.