The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism wrote to the editor of each newspaper asking for an interview. We sent them the findings for their newspaper and an explanation of how we did the snapshot survey.
The idea was to give the editors a chance to view their paper’s results: the percentage of articles that were PR driven, the percentage that were not only PR driven but lacked any additional work by the journalist, and a rank out of 10 so that each editor could gauge how they fared in comparison to the rest. Crikey and the ACIJ felt that it was only fair the editors had a chance to respond before publication and also, to defend their papers.
Just four of the 10 editors agreed to be interviewed, three from News Corporation. No Fairfax editor agreed to be interviewed.
The reactions to our invitations for comment ranged from dismissive to enraged. Some editors engaged in a flurry of correspondence with the ACIJ, but made it clear that the contents of those conversations were not for publication, so unfortunately we can’t share them with you.
The editors interviewed were Chris Mitchell, The Australian’s editor in chief, Courier Mail editor, David Fagan, editor of The West Australian Brett McCarthy and Hobart Mercury editor Gary Bailey. Editor of The Daily Telegraph Garry Linnell was too busy to do the interview or to nominate anyone to do it on his behalf. The editor of The Financial Review Glenn Burge, The Age editor Paul Ramage and Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel, all declined to be interviewed.
The editor of the Adelaide Advertiser Melvin Mansell was not available.
Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray requested some evidence of the findings. We sent him two extensively researched examples. His comments on these two examples are included in other stories in which they are dealt with specifically. Fray then declined an interview unless we sent him every example. We declined to do this. Across all newspapers, this involved hundreds of examples. Our timeframe did not allow a separate examination of every article published in each edition that week. Fray then declined to be interviewed but made this comment:
“It is difficult to make informed comment when we have not been given the details of the examples you and your team cite. I do not fully understand your reluctance to give out the other examples. We are, of course, concerned by your allegations but without seeing the examples I cannot comment on the veracity of your claims.
“In general, the Herald, more than any other newspaper, stands for serious journalism and a has rigorous approach to marking special reports as such and interrogating the flood of PR material which infects our industry.
“Are we perfect? Obviously not. No media outlet is, and we should be held to account just as we hold others to it.”
Of all the editors interviewed for this investigation, Mitchell was the only editor to take the results of his paper in stride. Unlike Fagan, McCarthy and Bailey, Mitchell was not surprised at the amount of PR-driven material in his paper. He goes as far as to say that in the news section of The Oz, he thought it would be 100%. The full interview with Mitchell is published in a separate item below.
All of the editors disputed the ‘no significant work done by journalist’ figure.
The editors agreed on several fronts.
All agreed that the PR machine has grown, particularly over the past five years, and that spin is now so pervasive it is impossible to avoid and at times, impossible to overcome. However, they didn’t think that this growth in PR has affected the quality or practice of journalism in their papers. As McCarthy would say, news is news. But do readers care where it comes from?
More specifically, editors said that the business and police rounds were the most PR imbued. Fagan had this to say:
“… one of the changes in stock market reporting requirements over the last decade, the requirement of companies to continually disclose, which is good for shareholders but it also means that its virtually, 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 for people to tend to say well we just want to get PR people to manage our relationship with the media. So now company executives s are well schooled in talking to the media and will run what they want to say past the PR person first.”
Penetrating the police media unit is also difficult and journalists have had to find ways around it using alternative sources and Freedom of Information requests. In other words, what you and I might call good old-fashioned journalism. This on the subject from Mitchell:
“I think the police have been insidious in trying to control the relationship between individual journalists and police, so the tradition I grew up with of journalists going to the pub with cops is non-existent at the moment. And the police, more than any other organisation are driving everything through police media. I think it’s a bad practice and I rail against it in the office all the time. I’m trying very hard to get people to emulate people like Cameron Stewart who don’t go through police media but, of course, that’s why he’s getting prosecuted and been under investigation by the Australian Federal Police two or three times in the last two years.”
To follow is a snapshot of the interviews we conducted with the four editors who agreed to go over the results:
The West Australian — Brett McCarthy. Interviewed by Flint Duxfield:
On not having a problem with his journalists relying on PR for story ideas:
“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 … we would be remiss in our duties if we ignored it just because it comes from a PR company.
… if it’s news it’s news, it doesn’t matter where it’s come from.
… We’re judging it on news value alone. When stuff is being judged, it’s being judged purely on its news value. The people that are judging it may not even know at the time if it’s been generated by a press release or not, they just judge if it’s a decent story.”
On the alleged increase in pressure in the newsroom on journalists in recent times:
“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 take 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.”
Read the full interview transcript here.
The Hobart Mercury — Gary Bailey. Interviewed by Alex Taylor:
On being surprised at his paper’s result:
“Very, very surprised … I did my own survey of The Mercury from the 9-11 September and putting on my blackest of black hats, I could only come up with 51 story leads which might have been driven by PR.”
“Not including international or overseas or AAP content.”
“You’ve got to get the context, the imputation of the survey is that [PR-driven journalism] is a bad thing.”
“I’m the first to confess that these things [unchecked PR] do go through … for instance, there was a story on Bank West which was just a straight re-write [of a media release].”
On staff cuts:
“Last year The Mercury has reduced staff by 10 full-time equivalent people mainly in sub-editing [14 production staff] and we’ve lost one general reporter and one sports reporter but I am delighted to say staff has responded to the challenge and we’re more efficient than ever: I think our papers are better [for the reduced staff size], as far as our reporting staff go, we zero in on the stories we think are important and more tailored to our audience.”
On the fact that it the issue is different for a smaller, locally focused publication:
“I would have some very cogent arguments for our local [content] — very small stories that are basically public service announcements, an awful lot of public service announcements are in our paper.”
“We’re not relying on PR more and more, the great majority of our content is local and event-driven PR would be important, but we encourage people to ring the paper and alert us to stories. We have to rely on PR, it’s how businesses and organisations communicate what is important to them.”
Read the full interview transcript here.
The Courier Mail — David Fagan. Interviewed by Sasha Pavey:
On the relationship between PR and the media:
“Spin is so ubiquitous that if you are a big mainstream news organisation 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 is coming through a PR machine of some sort.”
On his paper’s result of 27% of articles relying on PR with no significant work by the journalist:
“… 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 any more 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.”
On the nature of PRs:
“My experience over a long time in journalism is that PR people want to build up the role they can take in creating a story, and they want to build up the importance of what they do to their clients and potential clients, and often they want to build up their role to the journo … so I’d take that with a grain of salt.”
Read the full interview transcript here.