Note to all aspiring journalists: quell the fire in the belly. It seems that so far as the nation’s leading media outlets are concerned, there is no longer any difference between journalism, advertising and public relations. Witness the endless free publicity given to that collection of chips and plastic, the new Apple iPhone.

Look at this and this. Both News Limited and Fairfax Media and most of our television news services have fallen holus bolus into the public relations net. Day after day, week after week the iPhone has been given pages of prime news space, bumping real news.

Crikey has written previously about the Fairfax press’s sins in this respect, but now look at this – a blatant piece of cross promotion between apple and Fairfax’s Domain classifieds, an obvious commercial arrangement not declared to readers of the papers’ news coverage.

Only days ago I reported on an apparent win by staff at The Age on issues of editorial independence. But what use are codes and principles when they are breached, apparently without anyone seeing a problem?

News Limited are equally to blame. I have been in Adelaide over the last week, so am most aware of the Advertiser’s sins, but I know it is not exceptional. Crap like this ran last week. On Saturday the iPhone took out the whole of page three, with break out quotes from a vox pop such as “I think it is a great, a very unique phone.” Woopy-do.

Were there really no other stories more deserving of the space? Did superbugs at the Adelaide hospital really deserve to be bumped to page five by this garbage, given that we already knew (unless we have been hiding under a rock) that the phone was to be launched?

And today the iPhone is there again, all over page 11, with prominent product shot and a breakout box that (with another product shot) talks about “the future of mobiles”.

When I taught in university journalism courses, we used to set a task in which students were given an ethical case study and asked how they would tackle it. One of the scenarios we used concerned the release of a new mobile phone. The manufacturer claimed it would do things no other phone would do, and invited journalists to fly interstate to a slap-up event where it would be launched. The journalists were also offered free phones to keep.

Students had to decide what to do. Was the launch a newsworthy story at all? Should they take the free travel? Should they keep the free phone?

There was no single correct answer, but there were plenty of incorrect ones. Marking the essays, we would usually suggest that at a minimum, journalists should make a hard-nosed assessment of the news value of the story before covering it at all. Quite possibly the invitation should be filed in the circular filing cabinet.

If they did cover the story, then they should declare the freebies to the reader. Personally, I think that while they might borrow a phone for the purposes of review, no reporter who valued their integrity should keep it without paying fair market value. I suggested either returning the phone or donating it to charity, and letting the manufacturer know that this had been done.

Obviously all this was hopelessly old fashioned bollocks.

There have been a few mildly critical reviews of the iPhone, but by and large it has been page after page after page, hour after hour of advertising dressed up as journalism in all our leading media outlets, with no declaration or revelation of the public relations machinery behind the so-called news.

I am prepared to concede that the iphone is a genuine, though limited, innovation and therefore a legitimate story – to a point. Its web surfing abilities and the number of mainstream media companies gearing up for delivery of new content to mobile devices alone makes it part of significant technological development.

Newsworthiness of the launch? I’d suggest for most mainstream outlets one fairly prominent preview article would have covered it, perhaps with an analytic feature on the significance. Then maybe a follow-up brief of a paragraph or two to note that the launch had actually taken place. Perhaps a bit of coverage of the commercial success in the business pages, and a product review in the technology sections. That’s it.

I am glad to say that unless I have missed some egregious exceptions, (which is possible) the ABC seems to me to have given the story its due and no more, including some critical coverage.

As for the rest – the cross promotion, the freebies, the glad handing, the undeclared commercial arrangements and the hype – journalists should be ashamed and angry.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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