The death of journalism and the victory of PR

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The growth of independent media challenging the mainstream is massively overstated — in fact, more of our information than ever is coming from mainstream sources which, due to the decline of journalism, is almost entirely coming from the PR industry. Managing editor David Donovan reports.

Next month, the Government will release its Convergence Review which, based on an interim report released back in December, is tipped to remove restrictions on cross-media ownership in favour of a “public interest test”. The argument for this relaxation of the rules, according to the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, is that "convergence" (i.e. websites running videos); the rise of new "platforms" (that is, the internet); and new "voices" (meaning blogs), mean the old rules are somehow now irrelevant.

However, a 2010 study by the prestigious Pew Centre of Journalism in the United States casts doubt on this picture.

The study shows that, despite the rise of the internet, people have never received less information in total — and, moreover, what little they do gather is gleaned almost entirely from traditional sources.

And at a lecture in Brisbane in 2010, influential writer for the US website The Nation, John Nichols, offered some troubling facts about journalism in the US — where there is far more diversity of mass media ownership than we have here in Australia. He said that rather than offering a diversity of voices, individual journalists were typically obliged to produce content on a range of platforms — video, audio and print. Of course, with owners having radio, TV and newspaper interests, this means less journalists are required — a clear cost-benefit for proprietors. According to Nicholls, there are less journalists now there were in the time of US President Franklin D Roosevelt, and there were more journalists covering Reagan’s inauguration than Obama’s.

Rather than the new platforms leading to a diversity of voices — mainstream voices are, in fact, being snuffed out on a daily basis. Nichols called this decline in journalism a “crisis for democracy”.

But, you might ask, as we hear less voices from the main players, isn’t independent media filling the gap? The answer, it seems, is generally 'no'.

The January 2010 Pew Centre study analysed the way people get their information in the US city of Baltimore. The results were conclusive — people still get most of their information from “traditional” media sources. An analysis of independent (non-mainstream) media showed that 96 per cent of stories simply came from recycling stories found in the mainstream press. However, the study also showed that the mainstream press was producing 73 per cent less information than it did 10 years ago.

In other words, despite us getting almost all our information from traditional sources, these sources are producing less new stories than ever before.

And where are most these stories coming from?

With the extra demands placed on the dwindling number of main-stream journalists, they are increasingly reaching for stage managed events and press releases to source their 'news'. Pew reported that a staggering 86 per cent of stories were produced by “power”, with only 14 per cent coming from actual journalism — research, investigation, interviewing sources, digging, and so on.

That's right, we get most of our news from PR people. In other words, our news is becoming spin.

And, whilst opportunities for careers within journalism have declined, career opportunities within the public relations industry have boomed. In 1970, the ratio of PR officers to journalists was 1:1. In 1980,  this stretched to 1.2 PR persons to every journalist. Now, we see an eye-watering 4:1 disparity. It has reached the point where we now see PR companies producing fully edited news stories that are shown on commercial media networks in their entirety, without any notification to viewers or listeners that this is pure marketing.

While we receive pre-packaged news from powerful interests that mould and flavour our reality, our democracy is clearly at stake. In fact, Pew’s research showed that 63 per cent of stories came directly from Government officials.

So, why doesn’t new media produce more new stories?

It all comes down to money. Good journalism takes time, effort and money — something that is in short supply in the world of Independent media.

Independent Australia is one of the few independent media outlets that run investigations — and currently we do it at a loss. One way the Government could encourage independent media is to allow donations to bona fide registered Independent non-profit media outlets to be tax deductible — as is the case in the United States. It could also actively subsidise investigative journalism, as happens in some Nordic countries.

Support independent media — but beware of any further loosening of mass media ownership limits.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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