In journalism studies, we’ve been taught how the increasing commercialisation of news output leads to the erosion of journalism standards. In order to maximise profits, media organisations demand increased output from journalists across multiple news media platforms and at the same time cut costs by reducing journalist staff numbers. Due to the increased workload and pressure to meet deadlines, journalists no longer have time to hit the ground to gather news, or even to spend precious time making inquiries as part of the fact-checking process. Journalists have instead come to rely on public relations agencies and news wire services for both news gathering and fact checking.
While it has been made abundantly clear to journalism students that the ever-increasing reliance on public relations and news wires can and will lead to the cherished journalistic values of accuracy and objectivity being compromised, the subtler effect on the diversity of news content has often only been alluded to and rarely ever explicitly discussed. Nick Davies’s 2008 book Flat Earth News exposes this with much-needed clarity.
Using several content analysis studies on British newspapers, Davies shows that news organisations there depend heavily on wire agencies, such as Associated Press and the domestic Press Association, to cope with reduced manpower in the newsroom, and often take reports generated by the agencies as truthful and accurate, not bothering to do their own verification. The problem, Davies argues, is that such wire agencies often run on the wire which are themselves picked up from the major newspapers. This leads to a vicious cycle much akin to the blind leading the blind, except that in this cause its a form of selective blindness – important news that could affect public policy often gets left out simply because no one is there to find out about it.
To make matters worse, these wire agencies are also understaffed, and as a result tend to pick up a significant amount of news from public relations agencies. Newspapers then pick up these wire reports as fact and reuse them, often adding on additional material rewritten from the original news release sent by the same PR agency.
This is worrying for a number of reasons. Firstly, diversity of news content is vastly reduced with the cannibalistic relationship between newspapers and wire agencies – both are feeding off each other’s output, each thinking that they have comprehensively covered happenings in the nation and not bothering to do their own investigating on the ground. Second, is that news agenda is beginning to be dictated by PR agencies. This is not bad by itself, as they can and do bring issues to light that would not otherwise get any attention. What’s bad is that newspapers and wire agencies do not bother to verify the facts behind copies that PR agencies send out. Last of all, this unhealthy relationship between journalists, wire agencies, public relations agencies and commercial interests tend to divorce the news from what the public really wants to hear and be informed about.
Unfortunately, this is a clear and present problem with no real solution in sight. To dismantle this relationship would mean having to dismantle the tenets of the capitalist economy itself, a nigh impossible task. As Davies points out, we will simply have to be aware that has already happened, and be more wary of what we see in the media.