Monday, March 15, 2010

Read all about it: Over half of all Australian news content is PR

A major new study of Australian newspapers has shown over half of all editorial content is driven by some form of public relations. The study by Crikey and the University of Technology Sydney found that 55 percent of all hard news stories in Australia’s top ten papers were the result of a media release, a public relations professional or some other form of promotion. The study backs up similar international and Australian research that says PR is the backbone of modern journalism.

The study was carried out by UTS investigative journalism students and Australian Centre for Independent Journalism student interns in the spring semester of 2009. The students chose a five day period from Monday, 7 September to Friday, 11 September from the print editions of the ten newspapers and analysed news articles from 11 rounds for a total of 2203 articles.

The ten papers in the study were spread across three owners News Ltd (The Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, Adelaide’s The Advertiser and Hobart’s The Mercury), Fairfax (Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) and WAN (The West Australian). The 11 rounds chosen were: politics, business/finance, education, technology/innovation, police, rural, health/science/medicine, arts & entertainment, environment/energy and motoring.

Students investigated the origin of news and feature articles in these newspapers by using Google search engine and the Factiva news database to pick out earlier uses of direct quotes and phrases in media releases. Source material was also found as students combed exclusive interviews, publicity events, specialist email alert services, stories directly tied to and produced to support advertising, and public relations stories targeted and prepared for particular journalists.

The study found the News Ltd capital dailies were the worst offenders for using PR generated stories. Fully seven in ten stories in The Daily Telegraph were sourced from PR while the Hobart Mercury was not far behind with 67 percent. By contrast the Fairfax metro dailies did a lot better for original work with the Sydney Morning Herald just 42 percent spin and the Melbourne Age 47 percent. Worryingly (or brazenly, if you prefer), a quarter of all articles featured a journalist’s by-line with little or no appreciable effort in the article beyond the original PR.

Results also differed widely from round to round. Researchers found that over three quarters (77 percent) of all innovation/technology articles were sourced from PR while police was also high at 71 percent. Perhaps surprisingly given the number of governmental communications officers around, politics was lowest at 37 percent. But this is not necessarily cause for joy. The researchers cautioned this lower figure may be because “more public relations activity happens behind the scenes through journalists’ relationships with politicians and their advisers and for that reason is harder to identify.”

The results would have been worse if PR-heavy rounds such as property, travel and lifestyle were included or if the weekend papers had been included with their mass of supplements packed with promotional material. The problematic sports round was also excluded because contact between sports celebrities and journalists are heavily controlled by Sports PR. Crikey and UTS decided because of the nature of the media and PR industries relationship with sport, it was “too difficult to reliably code the sports reports”.

The findings should be no surprise to anyone working in journalism, PR or in research. Not only does public relations generally pay better than journalism, there are far more people in the PR industry than are currently listed as journalists. And with most companies now exercising strict policies when dealing with the media, it is getting increasingly harder for journalists to get anything other than the controlled message from an organisation.

Allied to this are time pressures and multiple stories which often do not give journalists enough time to get additional sources of information prior to deadline. The lowest-common denominator of Internet click-throughs and corporate penny-pinching also add to the problem. The bottom line is that investigative journalism is on the wane as we move towards the triumph of celebrity culture. On the whole, the quality of what we read, hear and see (the broadcast media are no better) on the news is ordinary. However the fault is ours. As news consumers, we are only getting what we pay for.

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