The West Australian ranked fifth in the Spinning the Media survey with the amount of PR driven stories found sitting right on average at 55% of total content.

We went to Brett McCarthy, editor of The West Australian, with the survey results.

News is news – it does not matter where it comes from…

– Brett McCarthy, Editor the West Australian

Flint Duxfield received the following email about 15 minutes before the interview had been scheduled:

I’ve read the material you sent me. Here is my only comment on the matter.

“PR companies have grown to the point where they provide us with an enormous amount of information on a daily basis. This information is assessed and judged on its news value alone. If a story originated from a PR company and appeared in the newspaper it did so because of its news merits. To say a certain percentage appeared without significant further work from the journalist is misleading. You have no way of knowing what work the journalist did to verify the story. I expect and am confident journalists at The West manage their relationships with PR companies in a professional and ethical manner.”

Duxfield then called him to conduct the interview.

He started by asking McCarthy whether he was surprised that 55% of articles analysed in The West Australian were initiated by public relations:

McCarthy: I don’t necessarily believe it. One five day period isn’t enough to really tell, there could be other reasons for it. …The growth of the PR industry is a reality and it’s there, they are pumping out a large amount of info on a daily basis, we would be remiss in our duties if we ignored it just because it comes from a PR company.

So many press releases that come up just get binned straight away … Come into this newsroom, sit on the news desk and see how much of the stuff [PR] is chucked out.

Duxfield: Just because someone has put out a press release, it doesn’t mean it’s not news, but surely part of the role of journalists to find out what the PR departments don’t want them to know. Is that possible when over half the stories they are writing are on topics that have been selected for them by PR people?

McCarthy: They’re not setting the agenda. We’re deciding what we cover. I expect our people to chase the stories that they think are the best stories.

Duxfield: But journalists and PR people are saying that journalists are under increased pressure to file faster and more often and this means they have to rely more on PR, does that concern you?

McCarthy: I started my career in afternoon newspapers, that’s how afternoon newspapers moved then; you had an hour-by-hour filing deadline. I don’t see that things have changed that much, the online filing component takes you back a bit to that kind of routine. It’s no excuse for not doing the proper research on the story. When we go to press, we have to accept that we won’t know everything that we would always like to know about what we write. But there’s an old saying in Journalism: if in doubt, leave out – it’s an important principle.

Duxfield: Around 30% were not only generated by PR, but also basically revealed that very little work, beyond looking at a press release, had been done by the journalist. Does that concern you as an editor?

McCarthy: I don’t think those figures give the full picture; you can’t possibly know how much work a journalist has done behind the scenes on a story.

Duffield: Do readers deserve to know when journalists have sourced their comments off a press release as opposed to actually interviewing the person?

McCarthy: No I don’t think so, I would expect they verify that the comments are from that person, but that’s all.

Duxfield: The print newspaper industry is going through a difficult period at the moment (Saturday readership of The West Australian has dropped by nearly 40k readers since 2002), with advertising revenues shrinking and competition from online mediums meaning journalists have to work faster and produce more copy to tighter deadlines. Would that be having an impact on the reliance journalists have on PR to find their stories?

McCarthy: I don’t see why it would; it’s a completely different issue.

Duxfield: Since you began your career as a journalist, would you say the standards have changed much in terms of how much reliance journalists can put on PR? What about the line between editorial content and advertising content, has that shifted much as a result of increased pressures from declining ad revenue?

McCarthy: Not at all. If any journalists are telling you that they are feeling that pressure, I don’t know where they are getting that impression. It’s got nothing to do with it. Our integrity as journalists is central to the work we do.

Duxfield: Do you think that journalists writing stories entirely from press releases is something which your readers would see as acceptable as ‘news’?

McCarthy: I don’t see why not, if it’s news it’s news, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

Duxfield: The question this raises is that if readers are happy to read stories which are not much more than press releases, does that suggest that the role of the journalist is changing, that the task of providing balanced stories is not as important as it once was?

McCarthy: We’re judging it on news value alone. When stuff is being judged, it’s being judged purely on its news value. The people judging it may not even know at the time if it’s been generated by a press release or not, they just judge whether it’s a decent story.

Duxfield: Does that threaten the role of journalists, if journalists are providing things that the readers can find for themselves by checking a press release online?

McCarthy: I don’t think so; I don’t think the instances that stories that are just press releases appear are as high as your numbers are saying.

Duxfield: Does the WA have a policy on how journalists should approach media releases or other forms of PR?

McCarthy: We don’t have any particular policy or guidelines. Our cadets and young journalists are taught how they should be conducting themselves – they know and understand how to verify sources. Beyond that, it’s up to the journalists themselves.

Flint Duxfield is a freelance journalist who is studying a Master of Arts (Journalism) at the University of Technology, Sydney.