Sasha Pavey took the Spinning the Media survey results to David Fagan, Editor of The Courier Mail, to get his response.
Sasha Pavey: Are you surprised at your result – 55% PR triggered and 27% without significant other work?
Fagan: I’m surprised at the 27%. Without seeing the stories it’s hard for me to agree or disagree. 50% that may have a PR beginning doesn’t surprise me … spin is so ubiquitous that if you are a big mainstream news organization, covering the news of the day as well as breaking your own news, you’re always going to end up dealing with a big chunk of what you do coming through a PR machine of some sort.
Pavey: Obviously, 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?
Fagan: Again, too hard to make that assumption without seeing specific stories. …let’s be hypothetical, let’s say the story is an announcement about the government’s health reforms. That’s a story that has come out of the PR machine and it’s a story we’ve covered generously. And we should, because it’s a big story of the day. In that case, the journalists look behind what’s going on and what people are saying about it … and just because it came out of PR, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cover it. If we did that then we wouldn’t be covering the big stories of the day.
… Reliance (on PR) may not be the right word, because sometimes it’s the intrusion of PR in the stories. I think reliance would be the wrong word. I think PR would have an influence on just about every story we cover now. You cannot ring even a lowly member of parliament now without there being a PR person involved. You cannot ring a very small listed company anymore without a PR person being involved in the transaction. Sometimes you can’t even cover a court case without a PR person sidling up to you saying ‘look, I just want you to understand this from the point of view of my client’. So it’s everywhere.
Pavey: Do your journalists have a set of guidelines about how to handle PR people and press releases to refer to?
Fagan: Yes … Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance and the Australian Press Council, the overarching thing is to try and get to the truth
Pavey: OK, but I mean what does that involve? … What is the bare minimum of journalism for a story at the Courier Mail?
Fagan: I would expect a journalist to get to the truth of what they are writing. I’m surprised at the 27% figure. Again, without seeing the stories it’s hard for me to agree or disagree with you. I would expect in most cases they would have made additional research.
Pavey: Do you think downsizing has had an impact on the amount in which your journalists are relying on PR?
Fagan: Well I don’t think we have downsized that much in our newsroom. That’s a bit overstated. We make more choices about what stories we choose to cover. I wouldn’t expect any of our journalists to say ‘well I’m not going to do more work on this story because, well, I’m too busy’, there’s no evidence of that…
Pavey: PR professionals we’ve spoken to have said that in the last five years, their role has evolved – they’re now doing work that was traditionally done by journalists. For example: fact-checking, providing sources and topic experts, providing direct quotes etc. Do you agree that this change is taking place, and does it worry you?
Fagan: Well PR might often say that. My experience over a long time in journalism is that PR people want to build up the role they can play in creating a story, and they want to build up the importance of what they do to their clients and potential clients. Often they want to build up their role to the journo… so I’d take that with a grain of salt.
Pavey: So you don’t think the role of the public relations person has changed over time then?
Fagan: I think the role of PR people has increased substantially. And that’s because taxpayers are paying a lot of money to a lot of people to get in the way of journalists trying to talk to primary sources. But I don’t think it’s a function of newsrooms downsizing, it’s more a function of PR people convincing clients that they can better influence the message and a willingness by politicians and corporations to say well, we’re going to spend a lot of money on it.
Pavey: Are some rounds more susceptible to PR than others? The police round had the highest PR. Which ones are more susceptible in your paper? Why is that?
Fagan: … It just so happens that over the past three days we’ve broken really big stories in the police round as a result of extensive and expensive Freedom of Information (FOI) searches to find out crime figures in QLD. We systematically have a problem with dealing with the police now and I think most newspapers are in the same boat – Police Media Units have become more and more dominant in controlling what we can find out. We’ve been fairly adept at finding ways around that, you might’ve got a bad week.
I think generally we break a lot of stories in police area, but it has become one of the hardest areas to report, because working coppers are afraid to speak with journalists because there are ramifications. We’ve found ways around that using different sources.
Pavey: What are the rounds that are particularly susceptible to PR, particularly in your paper?
Fagan: I think public relations sweeps across just about every area we cover now. I can’t think of an area where we’re doing a story and not running into public relations barriers. I think one of the interesting things is in the overall area of business, where one of the changes in stock market reporting requirements over the last decade – the requirement of companies to continually disclose – is good for shareholders, but it also means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to interview people in listed companies about affairs in that company because anything they tell you needs to be on the stock exchange record. The consequence of that is that people tend to say well, we just want to get PR people to manage our relationship with the media. So now company executives are well schooled in talking to the media and will run what they want to say past the PR person first.
I think politics, the government funded PR units, are overwhelmingly huge now. (It is) even in universities: once upon a time you could ring up and speak to a professor, but now you’ll find you have to speak first with the media unit and they’ll practice their questions and answers before they call you back.
Pavey: Would you say there is more pressure now because of reduced advertising? So producing copy that gives editorial to advertisers takes priority?
Fagan: No. I think sometimes one of the things that arises is that as we’ve created more lifestyle sections, sometimes people look at the content and say they are a bit soft and friendly to advertisers, but in the main, with these lifestyle sections it’s about finding material that is appealing to the lifestyle of readers. To outside people they think it’s there for the advertisers.
As an editor I’m concerned at the absolute frustration and difficulty our journalists encounter everyday with these huge publicly funded public relations machines and I think the amount of time we spend trying to cut through that is frustrating and beyond the pale. I want to see less PR, but I don’t see that that’s going to happen.
PR takes many forms and sometimes, if it’s as simple as a press release or PR person, it’s easy to spot but sometimes they try and manipulate messages in more subtle ways and we all have to be conscious of that. For instance, your school is doing this exercise in partnership with Crikey –
Pavey: Actually, I should point out here that this study was not conducted in partnership with Crikey. It was independent of Crikey; they agreed to publish our findings.
Fagan: But unless I misread this document …I guess everyone’s got a vested interest here. Crikey has an interest in making the mainstream media look less than it is and criticizing it, it is a boutique news organization that specialises in media criticism. And that’s a form of spin too, isn’t it? So it takes all forms, doesn’t it? Certainly if some of our journalists are doing less than they should to stand up stories I’d be pretty unhappy about it.
Sasha Pavey is freelance reporter based at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism. She recently completed a Journalism degree at the University of Technology, Sydney