At a time when increased media concentration will only bring less independent and fearless journalism, the Australian Press Council’s recently released report, State of the News Print Media in Australia, makes for sobering reading. It has received virtually no media coverage.

Some of the report states the obvious: that “newspaper companies are clearly in a transformational phase” and the internet poses the greatest threat to their longevity; journalists need to acquire a variety of skills to adequately perform their job; and the blurring of news and opinion has led to an over-reliance on public relations to shape stories.

The report’s most disturbing revelation is over the media’s use of sources. The Press Council defines a source as a person, statement or “anonymous source”. In 2005, more than 40% of all stories cited only one source, while 9.14% of stories used four sources and only 5.25% offered more than five sources. The use of one source, they rightly claim, “may have implications for assessments of fairness and balance.” This reporting opens virtually all mainstream reporters to allegations of laziness and favouritism.

In contrast, a US study found that nearly half of newspaper stories used four or more sources, including opinion pieces.

Unsurprisingly, Australian journalists rely disproportionately on government sources, accounting for nearly 24% of all sources. The fact that PR sources were rarely quoted simply proves that the industry is doing its job well.

These results would be worrying no matter what government is in power. It allows ministers, spin-doctors and lobbyists to rely on time-poor journalists to push a particular ideological angle or deny legitimate opposing views. As the Australian media landscape becomes even less diverse, and resources more restricted, we can expect the use of single source stories to increase many-fold.

Some journalists are fighting back. Walter Pincus is a veteran Washington Post reporter. He wrote in July this year that the US media are assisting the political establishment to “stay on message”, which means “the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going inside the White House.” His suggestion is directed to his US colleagues but is equally relevant here:

A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the President’s statement when he – or any public figure – repeats essentially what he or she has said before… Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.

Are our journalists listening?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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