So you think you’re getting original, thoroughly researched journalism in that daily newspaper you’ve just finished reading? Or perhaps you think newspapers are mostly disguised PR? We now have the answer, at least for one week.

An Australian Centre for Independent Journalism investigation for Crikey found that during five weekdays in September 2009, more than 50 % of stories analysed in ten Australian newspapers were driven by some form of public relations or promotion. To put it another way, less than half is independently initiated reporting.

The newspapers are The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Advertiser, The Courier-Mail, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, The Mercury, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian.

Some will be surprised the PR quotient was so low. But many young journalists who were involved in the investigation have expressed surprise and disappointment that it is so high.

The purpose of this project is to cut through the uncertainty and speculation by delving into the relationship between public relations and journalism through a snapshot survey, interviews and case studies. We hope to encourage more transparency on an issue that is under-exposed due to special interests and even fear on the part of those who work in the industry.

We don’t start from the standpoint that professionalised public relations is bad or that journalists shouldn’t pay attention to PR. We do say that PR is advocacy for a client. Some PR confuses, uses underhand means and is a barely disguised form of advertising. Some may be simply publicising a key event. The job of journalists is to scrutinise, test and go further than PR. If you don’t contact or are prevented from talking to a source yourself, how can you test what the source is saying?

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.

Journalists blame the lack of time and staff and cuts in editorial budgets for their failure to source stories independently. Most were reluctant to talk on the record. Three who did talk on the record then contacted us to say they would be penalised or sacked if we did not withdraw their comments. One said, when it was discovered she had talked to the ACIJ, she had been told she had signed a confidentiality agreement with the media company when she was hired.

The editors we interviewed had little sympathy for the reporters. Garry Bailey at the Hobart Mercury even said that he believed cuts had made the paper more efficient.

Public relations professionals tell us that they are doing more and more of the work that journalists used to do by tailoring stories for particular journalists and providing extra background and sources. Journalists pointed out that PR people have a stake in exaggerating their role. This may be true but we have case studies that demonstrate that in some cases the PR professionals are not overplaying their role. PR people were cagey too about revealing the details of successful campaigns in case their influence is diminished.

When considered round by round, we found that in some rounds are more than 60% PR driven. Each round has its own characteristics. Media sponsorships, free gifts and travel, tightly controlled government PR units, product placement in the form of new — all play a role. We will cover different rounds in a series of features. These will begin with two stories on Health in Wednesday’s Crikey.

One journalist from a News Limited paper said the ratio of stories generated by press releases compared to those arising from journalists’ initiative was “probably about half and half”, which she said is “about the right balance.”

Other journalists said the ratio could be much higher.

“The amount of journalism that occurs today that doesn’t have a press release involved at some point would be vanishingly small,” said a health reporter from a major Australian news outlet.

These comments reflected what our investigation found.

Tabloid newspapers overall also had more PR influenced content than the broadsheets suggesting that giving the audience what editors think it wants can also mean selling readers short on independent information.

Bob Burton, freelance health journalist and editor of PR monitoring website, Sourcewatch said:

“Being driven by PR initiated content pushes journalism into a dead end. It not only fails to serve the public, but it also creates a commercial cul de sac for the media because people realize that what journalists provide can just as easily be sourced from a press release on a website.”

As a by-product of our investigation, we tracked newswire material that made its way into newspapers. Newspapers have always relied on wire service copy to supplement their own journalism. Acknowledging the wire services is not a condition of their commercial agreements but failing to do so is not transparent. And putting a journalist’s byline on AAP copy is downright cheeky. On Wednesday, we will run an interview with AAP editor Tony Gillies who says use of AAP copy has increased.

Another issue is the creeping amount of advertorial — advertising driven copy that has the look of editorial. Over the last two years it has run more than 200 special reports in The Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald. While some of these were marked as advertising features, a number of them were not. News Ltd also runs such reports.

For more than a hundred years the business model for journalism in the western world has been built on an advertising and sales model with separation between advertising and editorial. Crossing the line from editorial to advertising has for journalists been considered an ethical breach.  How readers are supposed to know that Special Reports are advertorial, we do not know?   Later in the series, we will report on this issue in detail.

Our week of investigation was chosen independently of Crikey and some time in advance of the week itself.

The Sydney Morning Herald topped the survey as the paper with the least PR that week, a fact that shocked the editor of The Australian, Chris Mitchell. (The full interview with Mitchell will be published tomorrow.) The survey does not indicate long term results and we acknowledge that another week could have led to a different result. The fact that the Michael McGurk murder occurred the Friday night before, skewed the study in favour of Fairfax media as a source of original articles, since Sydney Morning Herald journalist Kate McClymont had spoken with McGurk off the record before he was shot.

“We didn’t need to rely on any press releases, from police or any other source because we already knew who McGurk was – in fact we were ahead of the police, we knew more about the situation than the police did,” said McClymont. While doubt might have been thrown later on aspects of the McGurk story, important information was revealed in this case not through PR but through a reporter who had the time to meet sources out of the office. Too few journalists have the same luxury. Sadly, a lot of police reporting is straight police PR.

The importance of the relationship between PR and journalism is highlighted by the sensitivity of the issue. A core underlying principle and its claim to rights to access information and protect confidential sources of journalism is its independence. Few journalists feel good about regurgitating PR. Even one journalist, who duplicated a whole double page of PR, maintained he was independent. The editors may deny the extent of the problem in their own newspapers but all but the editor of The Courier Mail David Fagan and the Editor in Chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell agreed the scale and influence of PR was threatening journalism – so why not talk about it?

Wendy Bacon is the Director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and Sasha Pavey is a freelance journalist based at the ACIJ and project coordinator of Spinning the Media.