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Mar 15, 2010

Over half your news is spin

Crikey reveals the results of a six-month investigation into the role PR plays in the Australian media, finding that 55% of newspaper stories analysed were driven by PR.


Today Crikey launches an investigation six months in the making. Spinning the Media is an investigation in conjunction with the University of Technology (UTS) Sydney into the role PR plays in making the media.

Under UTS’ Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) head Wendy Bacon (a Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist herself…) more than 40 students have got up close and personal with the sticky end of the spin cycle. They’ve had to analyse, critique, question and then pick up the phone to ask the hard questions of the media and its reliance on public relations to drive news.

Hard questions, because this is what came out in the wash: after analysing a five-day working week in the media, across 10 hard-copy papers, ACIJ and Crikey found that nearly 55% of stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations. The Daily Telegraph came out on top of the league ladder with 70% of stories analysed triggered by public relations. The Sydney Morning Herald gets the wooden spoon with (only) 42% PR-driven stories for that week.

Many journalists and editors were defensive when the phone call came. Who’d blame them? They’re busier than ever, under resourced, on deadline and under pressure. Most refused to respond, others who initially granted an interview then asked for their comments to be withdrawn out of fear they’d be reprimanded, or worse, fired.

But to their credit, some editors were quite candid. Chris Mitchell, editor in chief of The Australian, told UTS student Sasha Pavey:

“It’s very difficult I think, given the way resources have drifted from journalism to public relations over the past 30 years, to break away as much as you really want to … I guess I’m implying, the number of people who go to communications school and go into PR over the years has increased and the number in journalism has shrunk even more dramatically.”

Given the grim state of some of these papers, and the deep cuts to their workforces of late, in some ways it’s surprising the 55% isn’t higher. But as Bacon and Pavey write today:

Our investigation strongly confirms that journalism in Australia today is heavily influenced by commercial interests selling a product, and constrained and blocked by politicians, police and others who control the media message.

These are uncomfortable questions, but you’d be hard pressed to find a member of the media that doesn’t think they’re worth asking.


2203 stories. 10 newspapers. A five day snapshot. Six months’ worth of research. For the next fortnight, Crikey will be rolling out the results of Spinning the Media — a joint investigation with UTS’ Australian Centre for Independent Journalism into the role that Public Relations plays in making the media. Coverage includes in depth interviews with editors, journalists and public relations professionals plus features that breakdown the study into rounds like Health, Crime and Travel.

Read it all at the Spinning the Media homepage.

This content is exclusive to Crikey subscribers — to sign up for your free trial subscription, click here.


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20 thoughts on “Over half your news is spin

  1. Dave Donohue

    Good to see this again – although it’s hardly new newsw 🙂

    Have a look back at the research of Jim McNamara or Clara Zawawi from the early days of this century and it seems not much has changed.

    Dave Donohue
    IPRA Australian Councillor

  2. CliffG

    What a surprise!
    Shock, horror!
    John Howard’s favourite rag and Mr Murdoch’s lovechild, top of the pops with 70% of stories ” driven by some form of public relations”, yes folks it’s …The Daily Telegraph.
    But the big question is…Are the cricket results reliable?
    And Kevin Rudd’s supposed to be all spin and no action.
    There must be something about coming from Sydney, that they buy this shit. Talk back crap radio and the “Telly”. Just soooo sick!

  3. Idlaviv

    “The PR you can’t ignore.”

  4. Michael James

    I did my degree a decade ago and these stats were common knowledge back then.

    It’s a bit of a beat up on Crikey’s part to try and somehow spin this to be something new and shocking when in fact it’s very old news.

    As for CliggF’s snipe at the Telegraph, it’s not all about Murdoch vs Fairfax, its about who makes the news.

    Perhaps he might like to consider that a release from a hospital announcing a new children’s ward qualifies, as does a release from a company announcing that they are the new sponsor of the local surf life saving club’s rescue boat.

    Oh, and the largest generator of PR driven stories? Politics, hands down.

  5. Holden Back

    No, not news, but a powerful suite of information which deserves to be brought to the public’s attention time and time again.

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    Like the continual media spin that giving refugees is people smuggling punishable by long terms in jail even though it is a breach of refugee law.

    Not one refugee has been smuggled into Australia by anyone but we keep getting the same tired old drivel.

  7. Richard Murphy

    Yeh, (yawn) like ethics in journalism went out of the window about the time editors began being strong-armed by proprietors (1975?) and replaced by yes-men and orcs like Akerman et al. And PR after the ’60s filled the gap nicely. Recent Murdeng pix make it clear the smile is still on the face of the tiger.

  8. kim lockwood

    So what’s new? Northcliffe said it a century ago: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

  9. Dale

    What is with the user comments?!? I’ve never seen so much apathy!!! Don’t you care? The big media are just taking the general public for a ride, this doesn’t bother you?

    “It’s a bit of a beat up on Crikey’s part to try and somehow spin this to be something new and shocking when in fact it’s very old news.”
    HELL NO!! BIG UPS to Crikey for having the guts to bring it up again, there should be a story like this every month. To expose such blatant unscrupulous going ons in the media.
    I know News is becoming more and more entertainment by the day (Lara Bingle is NOT news!!) this shit has to stop… We are a truly misinformed public 🙁

    The News is just the Propaganda arm of the Government/Corporations, telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy!

    Its truly disheartening to see so much “yeah, who cares, been happening for years, what are u gonna do”


  10. Daniel

    So what’s new? Northcliffe said it a century ago: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

    You mean….like these articles?

    People clamour for decent investigative journalism and then when they get it all they can say is “ho-hum, already knew all this, nothing new under the sun.”

    We deserve Murdoch and Fairfax if that is our attitude.

  11. Alexander Berkman

    Absolutely, people have been so indoctrinated into the way the mainstream media works that they struggle to separate the ‘news’ from ‘opinion’. Our media is absolutely shocking, blatantly cheer leading for the rich, wealthy corporations that the are, and represent. Chomsky put it so well when he referred to the ‘manufacturing of consent’ – a consent that sadly seems to be ever so easy to be given, manipulated and owned…

  12. Michael James

    Dale, it’s like decrying the health system, or the traffic, or the state of public transport, or the decline of a football team, or the criime statistics, it’s become such a part of life that it’s become something akin to that great line;

    “Everyone complains but no one does anything about it”.

    Practitioners on both sides can express horror, or they can work within the system to try and ensure a quality result.

  13. jeebus

    Good job to Crikey for bringing attention to this! Watching infomercials like TT and Current Affair, I would say the stats for TV journalism are just as disappointing, and don’t get me started on the Internet.

    What can be done about it? Give Media Watch a 24/7 digital channel? Beef up the watchdogs? Force any media source to print ‘bias warnings’ on their products?

    Personally, I think a more educated populace is the best defence. The highest priorities in education should be to teach children how to think critically, and how to gather information from a wide variety of sources in order to cross-check facts.

    In this Internet age, everything we could ever want to know is at our fingertips, but many people are not equipped (or inclined) to filter bias or disinformation effectively.

  14. Surly Dave

    I was unlucky enough to be subject to an early approach from researchers in this project some months ago. In nearly 20 years of journalism I have not come across a more clearly biased or ill-informed approach.

    The person I spoke to clearly had little idea about what they were talking about and was unable to distinguish between spot news, rounds coverage and PR-generated stories. They wrongly classified parliamentary coverage, for example, as being generated by media releases. Attempts to explain they were barking up the wrong tree were unsuccessful and I told the researcher I wasn’t happy to continue tying to assist with their work. We never heard back from them, although I notice we didn’t fare too well. It’s not an accurate reflection of the paper. I’d love to see the data it’s based on, because there’s no way it’s correct.

    I’m not kidding myself, PR does have an influence on what we read as news, but I’d place little credence in the conclusions of this project based on my experience of it.

  15. Ironhead

    It may be old news, but it is important news. Too many people believe what is written in the newspapers as if it were written in stone and being carried down from the mount. The mainstream media also choose very carefully who gets to have their say on current issues…Case in point; I belong to a political party in South Australia and am actually running as a candidate in the House of Assembly. Not just me but pretty much anyone from our party is ignored by the Advertiser and AdelaideNow. This is also despite the fact that I have tried to gain some form of response from our Premier and A-G regarding the A-G hiding behind privilege and slandering several people. He is quite well known for this. Why is a legitimate political party with a large membership ignored by the main (only) newspaper in the lead up to an election? We don’t have any clout, yet, we are victims of the governments spin. The sooner we have an ICAC in this state and the closeness of some government departments and some private businesses are investigated the better off and better informed our population will be.

  16. scottyea

    I just keep forgetting that Australia’s news industry is among the most monopolised in the WORLD. Thanks for the reminder.

  17. LoafingOaf

    I really find this a bit much. “Over Half Your News is Spin” is a pretty nasty bit of spin in itself.

    What you appear to have identified is that the original source for a journo in generating a story is a media release in over 50% of cases. If your survey identified that journos were then writing a story based completely on that release uncritically, not seeking alternative viewpoints and simply regurgitating a corporate or party political PR line or worse still just rehashing the release itself, I’d say we have a problem. But that is categorically not the case, nor is it what your research shows. That does unquestionably happen, and it happens a lot more than it should. Media Watch gets on the case about that periodically, and yes it does more often than not appear to be the Telly on the receiving end. The percentage of those cases would be the really useful statistic, but it would be a tiny minority.

    I have no problem with the source for a story being a media release provided the story is then followed up with appropriate journalistic rigour, balance and integrity. Something that in my experience most journalists remain assiduous about.

  18. Robert

    Can we say lame? You’re the one guilty of spinning … as in, stating something that is (a) not true and (b) being decades late to the influence of PR in media. OK, let’s say clueless, too. Hey, you fit both terms.

    You call this an investigation? “launches an investigation six months in the making” … hello? Sparky, 6 minutes searching archives of a library would show you numerous *real* studies on this topic. They, unlike you, are balanced and leave the tabloid nonsense out of the mix. Where is your methodology? If you’re going to purport this nonsense to be true, you best back it up with your work.

    Seriously, you should be ashamed for trying to pass this off as news. And, until you provide your methodology and a deeper look at the way you conducted your *study* … I’m actually stunned that a university would work with you on such a project. Although, maybe they didn’t know you would write such tripe.

    Even more pitiful, you call it spin, yet provide no proof that there is anything untrue about the news that was generated in any of these stories. Here’s the final hilarious result of your story. Your attempt at reporting is so poor, your reputation now needs representation. Yep, you need PR help. How lame can you be, really.

  19. yabby

    I’m particularly interested in the anti-Police media comments by Mr Mitchell who must think he lives in a perfect world where all journalists are scrupulously ethical, honest, highly trained professionals.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The fact is that MOST of the media in this age are untrained, ignorant. dishonest children with no life experience.

    I would draw the parallel that the media situation in Australia is a bit like the Port Arthur Massacre….a madman with a gun.

    They don’t care who they hurt. They don’t care how much damage they do to innocent people. They don’t care about their tactless and insensitive invasions of private grief.

    There are at least two TV reporters in WA alone who have actually killed people in their arrogant and offensive quest to make a name for themselves. The two people committed suicide after becoming the centre of unfair, unethical and dangerous media scrutiny.

    The media is continually responsible for regularly compromising and torpedoing highly sensitive police investigations, and the administration of justice in our courts.

    That’s why Police Media units around Australia MUST vet and control every word, every comma, and every full stop emanating from their agencies….THAT’S what’s in the public interest…although it may not be interesting to the public.

    Yes, the public does have the right to know…….but not the right to know EVERYTHING.
    The research itself is flawed.

    Most law enforcement agencies have well established Media & Public Affairs units.

    At least 99% of all media releases and police related news conferences are arranged by the respective police media units. These are factual responses to media requests and revelations of various police related activities.

    In these situations there’s no room for ‘spin’…and there’s no need for it…there’s nothing to hide.

    Some things are not made public, usually for legal reasons, or the privacy of people caught up in situations that should not be in the public realm such as mental escorts to hospital etc… or the integrity of sensitive ongoing investigations.

    The PR people produce less than one per cent of police news, such as the opening of a new police station etc.

    Police news itself makes up a massive proportion of ALL news…so its misleading to say that more than 70% of police news is generated by PR people…the statistics produced in your document should have been carried out with proper statitical research protocols.

    And I’m only a journo/lawyer with 41 years experience in the news media across Australia as photographer, cameraman and award winning radio and TV journalist

  20. Robert

    I note that the authors of these stories and those that generated the supposed ‘research’ continually refuse to return to comments and respond to criticism.

    Where is your response? Where is your detailed methodology? No, not the mere snippet you provide. Maybe you didn’t have a detailed methodology.

    If you’re going to leap into the social media arena with this faux news story, then you should be willing to interact with your readers.


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