205 - Churnalism

This is a piece about WHY it is that the Press is the Enemy, how it has failed us as customers.

At the moment I see that commercial imperatives (reduce costs, increase revenue) have squeezed the journalists to the point where they simply cannot go out and find news, so that they instead simply regurgitate what they ‘take’ from trusted sources. This is churnalism, the churn—recycling—of the journalism of others. This often requires a modicum of rewriting, “to fit with our readership”.

This commercial pressure is the principal reason for the shrinkage of the journalist as a profession. It is balanced by a vast increase in those employed as PR representatives, whose new role is to supplymore or less direct to newspapers—content for those newspapers. If you were to go find a PR piece as sent, it has an uncanny resemblance to what is published in the press.

Much of my content, in the first instance, has been taken from Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies.1 I have the book, so I’m less worried about viruses from the site.

Side issue here; flat earth news is not the same as the Flat Earth Society, not other sites based on the belief that the earth is flat. There are several similar names in use – I am referring to that property, as Nick Davies does, of flat-earthers to deny what some of us think is fairly obvious when supplied with sufficient information.  Note the qualifier, please. Stand in the fens (north of Cambridge) and it is easy to believe in discworld, or that the horizon is up from where you stand, probably because it may actually do that. Go up a high mountain, get up in a plane, view pictures from space and the earth is clearly spherical.

A lot of the apparent cowardice of the press is because of the success in suing papers for things they have said. I suspect that it is not libellous to declare an opinion, but I would not be surprised if opinion that can be misread as fact is not only libellous but defamatory. Further, I suspect that past successful actions for defamation now leave the press severely weakened in its ability (or will) to tell us what they discover. A case in favour of the press came just last week over Keith Vaz, prominent politician, caught evidently in association with male prostitutes (Sunday Mirror, then Telegraph, Mail, Mirror, from 11/9/2016). Here’s a link, that clarifies quite who did what from the press action point of view (and action in the law sense, too). This So this whole affair revolves around privacy. According to the editors’ code intrusion into a person’s privacy is warranted if there is a genuine public interest. Among the definitions of public interest are the exposure of “serious impropriety” and the exposure of actions or statements by an individual that could be said to mislead the public. The Sunday Mirror’s editorial made its stance clear. It conceded that “nothing Mr Vaz has done is illegal.” But, as chairman of the home affairs select committee, he held a powerful position.

I say this is a rare case of press action, a paper actually generating news (not by entrapment, either). I don’t approve of the item, but I concede a public duty served, since among Vaz’s duties he has been declaring government positions on such matters – I concede there is a genuine public interest here.

But the direct consequence of past successes in taking papers to court has made papers timid in developing stories. The far greater commercial pressure (again, reduce costs, increase circulation) moves every reporter back to his or her desk and away from their contacts and from the street, especially any street not in close proximity to the paper’s offices in London. Which is why the British press is so London-centric.

That problem is writ large across the globe. Worse than that, if we accept that the demands on each reporter mean that they are regurgitating news ‘off the wire’ then we accept that the traditional rules about checking are soon waived (it is a commercial pressure most easily solved by declaring, say, the top three wire services to be trusted to have done sufficient checking already) simply so as to have a chance of meeting the production deadlines in terms of volume, let alone content. So the churn occurs, but the dreadful thing is that those same commercial pressures apply almost as much to the very wire services that ‘our’ press is relying.  Let’s look at Reuters, PA and AP3. Based in London, London and New York. Reuters employs 2500 journalists and 600 photo-journalists; Associated Press (AP) has 3200 employees, 243 news bureaux in 120 countries; the Press Association (PA) has as shareholders a number of UK national papers and I failed to garner equivalent numbers. I suspect that what the PA is doing is collecting news on behalf of all its member papers, who then rewrite, edit and adjust the story to reflect the perception of the readership for each particular organ. That is sensible economy of scale, provided the reporters down at the sharp end are able to get out and about to find the news, not be stuck at a desk like those they supply. One suspects a lack of resource such that the majority of reporters are largely desk-bound. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that large numbers of press are scattered around the world in proportion to population; that is not so. The number of contributing journalists to wire services in New Zealand is, I think, around one per service across the several services. try looking up reports on earthquakes in or near Christchurch [2010 (7.1), 2011 (6.3), 2016 (5.9)], though you could argue that events like this are ‘made’ for tv. Sorry, ideal for that medium.

So are there some stories of which we should be (have been ) aware? Things that have been not covered by the press but probably should have been? Nick Davies offered several items from which I have made a list – and we should recognise how hard it is to judge what is newsworthy.

Greg Palast – BBC. In the months leading up to the November [2000] balloting, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered elections supervisors to purge 58,000 voters on the grounds they were felons not entitled to vote. As it turns out, only a handful of these voters were felons. This extraordinary news ran on page one of the country's leading paper. Unfortunately, it was the wrong country: Britain. In the USA, it was not covered. The office of the governor [also] illegally ordered the removal of felons from voter rolls – real felons – but with the right to vote under law. As a result, 50,000 of these voters could not vote. The fact that 90% of these were Democrats should have made it news as this alone more than accounted for Bush's victory. (click for more Link

Robert McChesney – 500 radio & TV appearances. [There has been a] striking consolidation of the media from hundreds of firms to an industry dominated by less than ten enormous transnational conglomerates. The largest ten media firms own all US TV networks, most TV stations, all major film studios, all major music companies, nearly all cable TV channels, much of the book and magazine publishing [industry], and much, much more. Expensive investigative journalism – especially that which goes after national security or powerful corporate interests – is discouraged. ... A few weeks after the war began in Afghanistan, CNN president Isaacson authorized CNN to provide two different versions of the war: a more critical one for the global audience and a sugarcoated one for Americans. ... It is nearly impossible to conceive of a better world without some changes in the media status quo. (click for more)    Link

  1. What is going on in your local council? there are 400 plus such councils in the UK; your local ‘free’ advertiser hasn’t the staff to cover even the District Council meetings, so they take whatever they are given by the PR staff on the council (if it can afford one).
  2. What’s going on in parliament? You think you’re well informed? Jack Straw showed that there were on average 800 lines of copy per day about parliamentary debate from 1933 to 1988, but under 100 by 1993. It has been judged uninteresting, as in ‘it doesn’t sell papers’. I will look for a parliamentary digest; you can watch proceedings on the tv (but that is a very slow way to learn that MPs are very, very boring and too often inarticulate and off-topic).
  3. What happened to court reporting? there used to be twenty PA reporters at the Old Bailey and now there are two. Apply an equivalent cut across the country and there must be a lot going on in our courts of which we remain unaware. Mind, that may be a good thing, meaning that we learn eventually of significant changes to the law without the prurient detail of any particular case – but you will only find that buried in the legal review and comment, when, I suspect, there are matters changing of which one should be aware. Examples perhaps an the changing attitude to driving offences?  2
  4. What happens if you run the plagiarism software used to test for academic rigour on a newspaper? Please read this from Chris Patterson at Leeds University.I’ve copied the Guardian’s shorter version of the same thing below at footnote 4.4 Answering my own question, you discover the proportion of news that came ‘off the wire’, 68% in 2001 and 85% in 2006 on the aggregator sites, 34-50% on other classes of site. There is no reason to think that trend has stopped.
  5. Why is it so hard to find science news? Technology news? I look on teh net for this, since the newspaeprs are virtually devoid of content.
  6. We get occasional reporting about Europe, but very little of the politics of each country. What we do get is somehow written so as to be not interesting. Why is that? Should we not be interested in, say, the reported rise of isolationism across Europe? If so, why are we only shown the headline, not any detail? Indeed, are we being given only the churned news, when this might well have affected the way we voted Remain / Leave?
  7. What does the World Bank do? the IMF? lots of NGOs around the world? Should we know?
  8. What is the level of world poverty? A brief google shows that it is worse than it was, so perhaps we should be aware and addressing a problem before it reaches these shores?
  9. What about off-shore tax havens? World-wide corruption? Surely we want this under control (the missing money is probably ours in part)
  10. Do we know what is going on elsewhere? Why are we not interested? Is that simply because it is not reported? is that simply because finding out what is going on is too expensive (for the commercial model of the organ you read)? What about the inequality of nations?
  11. As an example, we express public outcry at ‘human rights’ offences in various nations, picking say China as one we often comment upon. Where then is the detail, and where is the recognition of a different culture? If we recognised a different set of attitudes, would that not help us recognise and improve our own internal toleration (or its lack)? When is it wrong to impose your values on another? 5
  12. What happens when the biased pseudo-reporting is the whole tale we are told? We get stupidities we have to live with, like Brexit. Davies cites the Hutton report, as a sound example (p173/4) which I paraphrase. The Ministry of Culture launched a major consultation on the future of the BBC at the same time as the publication of the Hutton report (on Iraq). The official report of the consultation said one thing and the Hutton report said another, causing the resignation of several senior BBC figures. Yet the public opinion expressed within the report says that ‘we’  would like the BBC to be more (and more) independent, especially of government.  You might hunt for the green paper  "A strong BBC, independent of government" (the Green Paper, 02 Mar ’05) and the response, 24 May,  "BBC Response to A strong BBC, independent of government".  This matter will run for decades yet, unless (until?) the government kills off the BBC. Any party that removed it would lose the next election, but I deem it unlikely that the next government would restore such a change. So much for any semblance of a free press. We know we don’t have free press in print, but the BBC is trying hard to meet public perceptions. It fails, thanks to the stupidities of the demands for ‘balance’. The Beeb even has programmes explaining how stupid this is.6
  13. There was a list, 2006, from the UN of what it considered the ten most under-reported stories on the planet. Follow the link and find they maintained this list 2004–8. Thereafter I assume they produced their own news service, presumably as a response. Unfortunately, this seems to have fallen into a very similar trap to that I am describing on this page and reads to me as an organ pushing PR for the UN, justifying its (UN) existence more than telling the stories others are ignoring. I found some of this quite interesting. In particular one of the 2006 ‘stories’ describes an issue (link) of asylum seekers that we would have done well to absorb better then.

I have come to a natural end; my enthusiasm for this topic just died. Publish and be damned.

Adding to this,16th, I wonder whether, in the spirit of the press hiding from prosecution and what is perceived as potential loss of sales, there is a counter-interest to publishing something—anything—that is significantly different from the competition. Davies points to (p148) Carlotta Gall, whose intelligent reporting from Afghanistan was simply ignored as rocking the boat, or perhaps un-American, instead of news worthy of note and response. Try looking at this, from the CJR, Columbian Journalism Review, which seems to be a sensible source of sensible press-watching and bull-spotting. These give you at least two incidences of content that we could usefully have been reading – in a sense, exactly the sort of content we should expect from our proess and are not getting. Or perhaps I am expressing a personal opinion; this is the sort of material I want to have in the public domain.

So I have a hunt to come, that of finding sources that free me of the churnalism , though it would be sufficient to have identified where churn is taking place. I see that a good deal of the problem is created by the insistence upon ‘balance’, where, as I heard on BBC radio fairly recently, a sensible person is matched against an idiot and both are presented with equal credibility. The results of such behaviour are several: (i) one loses what trust one had of the source for presenting rubbish (ii) one resents the causes of this behaviour (iii) one finds oneself pushed towards to the same emotive (emoticon-riven, emotional, visceral but certainly unthinking) responses as the press are making. This last is the stuff of riots, it is sheep-like and it reeks of our society being sorely reduced; this runs entirely counter to the concept of improving the nation by increasing the standard of education, unless and until we are able to exercise those rarely used thinking skills to discern what is rubbish. But I contend that we are being driven into a state in which we have extended, ‘education’ (test score results) that we find inapplicable to daily life and that we are drifting into a state of non-thinking because it is, like the press, so very much easier to not rock the boat. This is how we reach results such as Brexit, which defies logic and the information we had available at the time but allows the emotional response to over-rule the head – and so we in the UK find ourselves in a situation where we must make an exit work, or die a death as a nation. I see the US political scene as very similar (Clinton v Trump), in which, again, truth is largely absent, perception is all and at the same time positive responses are made to patently untrue statements. I don’t understand, but I think I saw something similar when watching video from the 30s of Hitler working crowds. Truth be damned, stir the masses into emotion directed as you want it.  As we saw, and as we will see again, this is not a recipe for extended success.

DJS 20160915

Happy birthday, Angela.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/jan/20/flat-earth-believers-youtube-videos-conspiracy-theorists   identifying genuine flat-earthers.

http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/home/index.php  I think this is spoof, but I’m equally (yes, I am) sure there are readers who truly believe.



https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wire_services  gives a list of press wire services






https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journalism.co.uk  covers online publishing. A source for churn.

1 Be warned, the associated site may be hacked, which means it is contaminated with viruses.  I declare this to be grossly unfair.  This site reports Davies to be but one of many authors and will direct you to a download source (I didn’t say it was free, nor did I say otherwise).  You will find Chapter 4, the rules of production, entire, here.

2 from the foot of page 78 of the book I am referring to:

“When I looked into this in the late 1990s, I found a criminal trial which ...... unearthed Scotland yard’s involvement in .. importing Yardie gangsters... used as informants and effectively given licence to commit crime in London. I also found... a gay 15-year old boy suing his local authority for the right to be placed with gay foster parents; a police officer confronted with evidence of his own corruption while giving evidence in a Crown court; electricity workers who were suing the privatised energy companies for skimming...; and a long sequence of hearings involving animal rights activists who faced jail... [because of] ..comments they had made to a newspaper.  All unreported.”

3 and the next most influential? The BBC.

4  News wire agencies—the "wire" tag comes from their early use of telegraph technology—are organisations set up by the print media to collect news from its newspaper members for redistribution to other papers at home and abroad. In the early 20th century, agencies such as Reuters in the UK, Associated Press in the US, Russia's Tass, France's AFP and many others, proliferated to exploit the potential of the telegraph for capitalising on breaking news. By the 1960s, only five news wire agencies remained, and by 2000, it was effectively down to just two global players - Reuters and AP. Take a glance at the international pages of most daily newspapers around the world and the Reuters or AP brands are all over the foreign news stories.

Dr Chris Paterson, a media academic based at the University of Leeds, has been analysing global news flows for over seven years, and he has major concerns about this duopoly. His latest paper looks at online news - with some worrying findings. A decade ago, many hoped the web would evolve as a democratising force that could alleviate "information poverty", but Dr Paterson's research suggests the opposite is happening.

Highly popular portals such as MSN or Yahoo! are websites designed to serve as a web user's home page. Offering news as a "sticky" feature to attract users is a well-established strategy. The net has seen a proliferation of sites offering links to up-to-the-minute news items. But Dr Paterson's research suggests this expansion is "a conjurer's trick - we are being duped by more brand labels on the same, very limited, news content".

Today, online news is characterised by three types of content provider. The first group are traditional media outlets such as the BBC or the Guardian which combine original reporting with some news agency content.

The second group are "disintermediated" producers of original news content which bypass intermediaries. This group would include the new high-profile websites of AP and Reuters that deliver agency stories directly to online news consumers. The third group are intermediaries such as CNN Interactive and MSNBC which, for international news at least, convey stories written by wire services with little or no editing. This group also includes "news aggregator" sites, such as Yahoo! and Google, where AP and Reuters provide the lion's share of the news, despite what Paterson calls an "audacious pretence at source diversity".

Google has developed searching algorithms for retrieving, selecting, ranking, and linking to "4,500 news sources updated continuously". This process can have bizarre results.

"For a breaking story in China," says Dr Paterson, "Google News consumers may be offered links to news outlets like Arizona Republic or KRQE Television (New Mexico) or the Calgary Sun. But they will all be providing identical, unaltered wire agency copy."

In 2001, Dr Paterson analysed a sample of international stories with some plagiarism detection software, and repeated the process in 2006. The original study found 68% of international news copy on the aggregator sites could be traced back to wire reports, but by 2006 this figure had risen to 85%. A similar comparison of the major original news content providers showed a rise from 34% to 50% dependence on wire copy.

Dr Paterson's study concentrates more on measurement than the causes of these trends but he points out that, "it makes economic sense that the two leading news agencies should dominate international news delivery in cyberspace, for as in any open and unregulated market, the strongest producers with the lowest unit costs thrive".

AP and Reuters have 150 years' experience in this area, of course, and digital technologies have made news agency production more efficient, allowing easy access into new markets through the creation of products tailored to new media.Whatever the media, AP and Reuters can sell and resell the same agency words and pictures with little or no costly human intervention.

Another noticeable change was the shift away from minor rewriting, towards the publishing of wire stories in their entirety with clear wire service branding - a practice encouraged by the previously low-profile agencies.This shows news sites are becoming more concerned with breadth of coverage and less concerned about projecting an image of providing original news coverage.In 2006, only four media organisations - Reuters, AP, the BBC and AFP - still do extensive international reporting. A few such as CNN, MSN, the New York Times and the Guardian do some, but most none at all.

Dr Paterson thinks this is a cause for concern - a growing number of people get their news from the internet, but they are being subjected to a very narrow worldview of global events.

News wire agencies have to try to please (or not upset) editors all over the world, so they have developed bland writing styles that create the appearance of objectivity and neutrality.

But ideologically distinctive views of the world inevitably seep into the news coverage. Even the act of choosing which stories to cover will tend to reinforce the status quo - stories challenging the dominant political players on the world scene (in agency eyes, the US and UK) receive little attention.

Dr Paterson's latest paper builds on earlier work looking at international television news which found that 63% of stories were based on events in the developed world and that "news as defined by international news agencies is almost exclusively the news of men ... where a 'main actor' could be identified in news agency stories, only 13% of these were female".

Research in the US and the UK also shows that online news consumers are spending more time on fewer sites.

A 2003 Nielson/Netratings survey found 46% of US net users get their news from TV news sites such as CNN or MSNBC, while 39% go to portals such as Google.

In the UK, Hitwise found, in 2006, that the BBC was the most popular news site (40%) followed by GuardianUnlimited, Google UK News, CNN, Yahoo!, Times Online and the Telegraph.

But do these findings really matter? Some media commentators would contend that, with blogs, citizen journalism and personalised newsbots, the new media model is "cultural chaos", a phrase coined by Brian McNair, professor of journalism and communication at Strathclyde University, to describe "a democratising force, demystifying established power [exposing] the rise of spin and promotional culture".

The internet may have facilitated widespread personalisation of information delivery, but Dr Paterson argues that "these phenomena make it no less a form of mass media than would the insertion of targeted advertising into a magazine delivered to someone's home".

And because resources are being devoted to endless distribution and redistribution, internet journalism will continue to grow thinner.

A recent state of the media report in the US found: "For now ... it appears that the resources devoted to skilled journalism will continue to shrink as the web grows." (State of the News Media, 2006).

In the long term, media watchers such as Dr Paterson believe the industry must invest in more original reporting as an alternative to the few genuinely international news organisations now on offer, and give more prominence to buying, and properly translating, original non-English language reporting from around the world.

"The research shows that despite the deluge of information available online, the old media sources remain the privileged tellers of most of the stories circulating about the world," say Dr Paterson. "And for most end-users, the internet is a mass medium providing mostly illusory interactivity and mostly illusory diversity."

from an abstract of ‘Inside Churnalism’, Jackson & Maloney, 2015, from here

There is widespread concern about the growing tide of “churnalism” in the news. Commonly, such accounts are written from within and about journalism studies. But this overlooks another story that we examine in this paper: that of the public relations (PR) practitioner. Based on interviews with 28 UK PR practitioners, we document their media relations practices, their perspectives on power relations with journalists, and their normative evaluations of churnalism. We find a number of PR professionals who understand news in depth, and whose media relations practice goes beyond the classic information subsidy, to what we call an editorial subsidy: targeted, tailored, page-ready news copy that contains key client messages. PR practitioners see power relationships in complex and contradictory ways, though. Despite many circumstances working in their favour, this does not mean they necessary feel emboldened in their everyday encounters with journalists. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, for the vast majority of practitioners, there were either professional or personal concerns about increasing churnalism. At least on the surface, very few observe journalists' recent travails with glee: most want to see a robust and independent journalism where PR input is balanced with other sources.

5 I say quite early on it becomes wrong, at the point where whatever the other party is doing no longer affects your perceptions. I feel this way about religion, for example; what you believe is your business and I’m okay with that until you wish to impose your beliefs upon me. There are (nationally local) norms of behaviour; an example would be Moslem dress – I have issues but not problems with women covering up, but once you hide your face away I have issues of a security nature, as I do with hoodies. Having football as your religion is fine up to the point where the associated heavy drinking causes social unrest. Making unnecessary noise is not okay in most of Britain, so if you need a temporary licence for a potentially loud party, fine – as long as the same applies to missing (or poor) silencers on cars and bikes. Which may be an argument for consistency and the subject of an altogether more ranting essay.

We have an assumption in Britain that if you become a Brit, then you will (are assumed to) adopt British attitudes. Much of the unrest about immigrants is that they take time to (absorb, appreciate, trust and) change. we do little to help that process along, when perhaps we could and should. What, then, is tolerance?  A lot of the time we discover that we are, individually, very varied, so that whatever these British values are, they are far from clear. Try some of the Britishness tests (essay No....). I think I have it right in calling these attitudes; we do not subscribe to very much uniformly across the nation, but there perhaps are attitudes that can be identified. Tolerance, within limits; independence of thought, acceptance of law (and regulation, and rights), willingness to laugh at almost anything and hence to ridicule almost anything but not so that it causes hurt. Sadly, we also believe in isolation (an Englishman’s home is his castle).

6 “What you said about the BBC”  July 2004

Most people indicated that they value the BBC and hold it in high esteem, but a significant minority disagreed. To those who like the BBC it was generally seen as the best broadcaster for news, documentaries and features about personal interests. But even to many supporters it is seen as being by no means perfect. Although satisfaction levels are high, most people want to see changes. However, there is a clear view that the BBC should continue to remain independent of Government, Parliamentary and commercial pressures.

9.23 There was a tendency for participants in qualitative and deliberative research to view paying for the BBC through general taxation as fairer than the licence fee because ‘the better off would pay more’. But most of these also felt that it would give the Government too much power over the BBC. Overall, this way of paying for the BBC was not very popular – it was the least popular of all methods tested in quantitative research, with only 7% in favour.

12.10  Our deliberative research backed this finding up strongly – demonstrating a very strong opinion that the BBC should not be responsible to Parliament – although there was a general tendency for participants to be unclear about the boundary between Parliament and the Government.

There is strong support for the BBC’s independence from Government and from commercial pressures

5.6 Our quantitative research shows that, while the BBC leads other public service broadcasters in perceptions of impartiality and accuracy, independence from Government generally appears to be a quality shared by ITV, Channel 4 and Five. When asked specifically whether the BBC was independent of
Government, public opinion was split, with 42% agreeing, and 39% disagreeing. “Independence generally”
and “independence of Government” feature in people’s image of the BBC – although they trailed behind the main spontaneous values attributed to BBC – high quality programming, lack of advertising and reliability.

Nick Davies’ contribution to the Leveson Inquiry (on the conduct of the press) is here. It may provide some insight. For non-Brits, please note that this is public material from the national (government, state) archives.

As I put the page to bed for the second or third time, I came across an ad for Adobe marketing cloud. Here’s the ad. Yes, it’s a laugh, but isn’t also the tail wagging the dog? It underlines that we have many powerful people unable to use big data. or even middle-sized data.

Why do I see parallels in this offering from Mnozil Brass?

© David Scoins 2017