Flat Earth News

Flat Earth News
by Nick Davies
416pp, Chatto & Windus, 2008

But the world’s still spinning around

Ever wondered how the various media channels all seem to cover the same stories on any given day? Ever thought it odd that they so often seem to run with the same angle on these same stories?

Flat Earth News is one journalist’s investigation into the rotten state of news reporting and its over-reliance on public relations and news agency sources.

The headline figure is certainly striking. Author Nick Davies cites a Cardiff University study for his book showing that over 60% of home news stories in the quality national dailies came wholly or mainly from agency copy or PR sources. A further 20% had clear elements of wire copy and/or PR.

flat earth news Note that this is home news in the quality newspapers (all the ‘broadsheets’ plus The Mail, but excluding the Financial Times). Had the study looked at celebrity and sports coverage and scrutinised the ‘tabloids’, then the pattern might have been even more pronounced.

Should we care? Perhaps not as much as Davies, whose primary focus is on newspapers. Consumers of news, comment and features have never had a wider choice of content in the form of newspapers, magazines, broadcast channels and websites, much of it available for free.

And it may not cause too much dismay in the public relations industry to know that we’re viewed as much more powerful and controlling than we believe ourselves to be. It’s a hard balancing act, though: should you allow your bosses or clients to believe that you have more control over an independent media than you in reality do, or should you continue to warn them that it takes skill, stamina and sensitivity to persuade a sceptical media of the merits of your story? That public relations is ‘pray for play’, not ‘pay for play’.

The problem with journalism stems from commercial pressures, Davies suggests. It takes time and resources to check facts and unearth uncomfortable truths. It’s much easier to rewrite copy from official sources, and this allows fewer journalists to write more stories to fill more pages or broadcast bulletins. Journalism has become ‘churnalism’ in pursuit of profits and ratings.

The title of the book refers to ideas that are received truths (for example that the earth is flat) until they are challenged by a maverick truth-seeker, often in the face of hostility from those in positions of power. Yet Nick Davies suffers from his own flat earth blind spot: he cannot accept the free market as a potential force for good. Throughout the book, left wing causes are assumed to be good, those championed by conservatives or free marketers are assumed to be bad.

One of these free market creations is, of course, the public relations industry. ‘Journalists who no longer have the time to go out and find their own stories and to check the material which they are handling, are consistently vulnerable to ingesting and reproducing the packages of information which are provided for them by this PR industry. At the very least, this involves their being directed into accepting stories and angles which have been chosen for them in order to satisfy somebody else’s commercial or political interests. At the worst, this embroils them in the dissemination of serious distortion and falsehood.’

The case against public relations is drawn from some familiar sources. There’s Edward Bernays speaking up in favour of propaganda as a means of social control, but without his words being put into their historical context. There’s Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image and, of course, Stauber and Rampton, whose Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! is cited by many PR academics, but whose real target seems to me to be big business.

Then there are the case studies in which light is shed on the black art of PR. Weber Shandwick need have no concern about their work on behalf of P&O over the Aurora’s maiden voyage. Technical problems forced the ship to return to dock within 24 hours of setting off on its maiden voyage in May 2000. ‘Shandwick took over management of the crisis and rapidly saw the threat of Fleet Street taking its angle from 1,800 angry passengers. That day, with the passengers still at sea, the PR agency took control of the story, issuing a press release, briefing 110 reporters, emphasising three angles: that the ship had passed its sea trials, that the passengers would be compensated, and that the Aurora’s next scheduled cruise in a fortnight would go ahead as planned. These angles successfully dominated the first day’s coverage.’

By the end of the second day, ‘the result was that the crisis was converted into good news. The Times headline compliantly captured the impact of Shandwick’s work: ‘P&O sails back on wave of goodwill’. They had achieved this through a strategy of briefing the media and of promising full refunds and a free second cruise to the passengers. What’s wrong with that?

Most public relations students become animated when propaganda is discussed, and many PR academics can follow Kevin Moloney in accepting that public relations is a form of ‘white propaganda’. But Flat Earth News is more important than this: it reminds us that ‘falsehood, distortion and propaganda’ continue to flourish at the start of the twenty first century. What’s to be done about this?

Davies tentatively suggests a supreme news agency to arbitrate on the truthfulness of the news. But it’s more likely that falsehood, distortion and propaganda will be called to account through free speech and free market principles in the form of fact-checking bloggers.

Comments

  1. Some interesting points, Richard – I, too, think Davies is blinded by rather a lot of Flat Earth views of his own. He is very good at pithy one-liners which seem to carry insightful truths, but not so good at balancing them into a coherent whole.

    Although he acknowledges that there never was a Golden Age when honest, truthful and objective journalists wrote fearlessly for the public good, he is too quick to assume that an information provider from another discipline is almost by definition up to mischief.

    He believes that real stories have to be dug out by reporters applying ‘news values’ to the insights gained from a network of contacts and informants; it is self-evidently bad that most organisations now have PR departments, and he is particularly concerned that by Bob Franklin’s assertion that by 1994 90pc of councils had PRs. The result is that journalists routinely “find themselves processing stories that have been chosen for them by people whose job it is to shape news coverage in the service of powerful interests.”

    Was the world really that much better when news was gleaned from a garrulous man (probably with a well-merited chip on his shoulder) holding forth to a reporter in a pub?

    Good journalists challenge everything they are told. The first question they should ask is ‘Why I am being told this?’ Davies is right to be alarmed when modern staffing levels mean reporters don’t have the time to ask such questions, but on shakier gound when he implies that old fashioned ‘news values’ are the yardstick for truth and public interest.

    As he himself writes, “The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces the truth. It is a classic Flat Earth tale….”

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