Some Crikey readers who responded to our investigation into public relations and journalism say it is an old story. We suspect that they’re mostly over 35. It’s a bit like saying we did the police corruption story 20 years ago, so there’s no more to be said. In fact, there has not been a lot of similar research done in Australia and there should be more not less in the future. What research has been done supports the ACIJ findings.
In 1992, Jim Macnamara, now the Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney completed his study The impact of PR on the media. This report included a survey of 417 journalists and editors in four Australian cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. He found that 86% reported ‘Very Frequent’ contact from PR practitioners. More than 74% reported receiving 20 or more PR communications (news releases, phone calls, faxes, etc) per week.
At the same period, 150 media releases from 27 different companies and organisations were obtained and content analysis was undertaken of the media in which the journalists were employed over a 12 months period. Articles were identified using a national press clipping service that provided 2,500 articles on the topics of the news releases from the selected media. The study was undertaken using strict word and content matching methodology.
The study found:
- 768 stories (31%) were wholly or partly based on the press releases (including exact extracts or facts and figures without alternative attribution). While 360 (47%) of these were published in trade or specialist media, 245 stories (32%) of PR based stories were published in national, State or capital city media;
- Up to 70% of the content of some small trade, specialist and suburban
media was PR-sourced;
- Only nine news releases out of 150 tracked (1.2%) were not used at all by the media;
- The average usage rate of press releases was seven times each;
- One news release (on a Lindeman Wines product) was published in 69
newspapers, many with a photograph provided by the PR firm.
Jim Macnamara who will appear in Crikey in the second week of the Spinning the Media series.
In 1994 Clara Zawawi published “Sources of News – Who Feeds the Watchdogs”, in Australian Journalism Review. She conducted a quantitative study on the analysis of media content that confirms high public relations contributions to news outlets. From 192 articles published in three leading metropolitan newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The Gold Coast Bulletin, the level of reliance on PR material was tested. Zawawi calculated that almost two-thirds of the stories appearing in The Australian (64%) and The Sydney Morning Herald (65%) and just over half of the articles in the Gold Coast Bulletin (53) were triggered by public relations. In the business pages it was more than 83%. (Some have pointed out that her findings were higher than ours but they used a much smaller sample. We note that she found 83% in the business pages whereas we found less).
In 2008, Bond University Professor Mark Pearson and Roger Patching completed a literature review, Government Media Relations: A ‘Spin’ Through the Literature; they focused on media relations with government, which the found was an under-researched field. One study their paper examines was by Barbara-Ann Butler in 1998, in which she recorded four evening free-to-air news bulletins in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne during November 1991 during parliamentary sittings and again during the 1993 federal election campaign.
Butler also collected metropolitan daily newspapers from the same three cities and the national daily The Australian for the same two weeks. The main aim was to identify the origins of the stories. She found that during the parliamentary sitting period (1991) journalists gained most of their material from official proceedings and press releases, followed by press conferences and other staged events. However, during the campaign period (1993) the prime source of news was ‘other staged events’, followed by press releases and finally press conferences. This suggests a highly controlled climate for political reporting. This will be no news to political reporters. One of the limitations of this sort of research is that these studies don’t pick up behind the scenes maneuvers. You need interviews to pick this up.
Richard Phillips’ unpublished PhD thesis in 2002, ‘Media Advisers: shadow players in political communication’ drew on both surveys and interviews. He concluded that rather than improving their policies and practices to earn a better reputation; governments used large numbers of public relations tacticians to counter any negative public perceptions. The advisers admitted to withholding information that did not suit their purposes, especially where it was unlikely that the damaging information would surface later on. If it did come to light the spin-doctors hoped to be able to release the bad news at a time when other important news was breaking on the world or local scene, so the story would be ‘buried’ (R. Phillips, 2002).
If you want to read about other smaller Australian studies, download the Mark Pearson and Roger Patching.
Outside Australia, the most significant recent academic research worth mentioning is the work that Justin Lewis and other researchers at Cardiff University who carried out research for Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News.
The study analysed news content of UK national ‘‘quality’’ newspapers (2207 items in the Guardian, The Times, Independent, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail) and radio and television news reports (402 items broadcast by BBC Radio 4, BBC News, ITV News and SkyNews), across two week-long sample periods in 2006, to identify the influence of specific public relations materials and news agency copy. The findings showed that journalists’ relied extensively on public relations. The researchers argued their findings raised significant questions concerning claims to journalistic independence in UK news media and journalists’ role as a fourth estate.
Here is a quote from the findings:
Overall then, the study verified that at least 41 per cent of press articles and 52 per cent of broadcast news items contain PR materials which play an agenda-setting role or where PR material makes up the bulk of the story (although broadcast news items are much more likely to involve the former). As already indicated, this is a conservative, baseline figure. If those stories in which the involvement of PR seems likely but could not be verified are included, then a majority of stories (54 per cent of print stories and 58 per cent of broadcast news stories) are informed by PR. This does not mean that the 46 per cent of print stories and 42 per cent of broadcast stories in the sample are ‘‘PR-free’’, simply that no verifiable evidence of PR activity could be identified.
The researchers also found that reporters were often not attributing information to its PR source. It’s worth reading the UK study which is bigger in scope and more complex in analysis. One of the co-authors
Dr Andy Williams is continuing to research in the field of the relationship between journalists and their sources.
If you know of more, let us know by posting here or contacting the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.
Lewis, Justin, Williams, Andrew and Franklin, Bob (2008) ‘A compromised Fourth Estate?’ Journalism Studies, 9: 1, 1 — 20
Macnamara, J 1993, Public relations and the media, unpublished Master of Arts thesis, Deakin University, Geelong.
Oakham, K & Kirby, B 2006, ‘Feeding the chooks in the country: A study of successful public relations media strategies in regional Victoria’, The Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, vol. 7, pp. 95-108.
Zawawi, C 1994, ‘Source of news: Who feeds the watchdogs? Australian Journalism Review 16(1), pp. 67-72.
Zawawi, C 2001, “Feeding the watchdogs: An analysis of relationships between Australian public relations practitioners and journalists”, incomplete PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.
B. Burton, 2007, Inside Spin, The Dark Underbelly of the PR industry, Allen & Unwin, Australia.
C. Zawawi, 1994, ‘Sources of news—who feeds the watchdogs?’ Australian Journalism Review, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 67–71.
CARMA Asia Pacific A Media Monitors Company, WHITE PAPER – Media Content Analysis: The Importance Qualitative Analysis & Best Practice Methodology January 2008.
D. Warne, 2007, ‘The PR industry meets journalism: down the rabbit hole,’ viewed November 20 2009 < http://danwarne.com/the-pr-industry-meets-journalism-down-the-rabbit-hole/ >
J. R. Macnamara, 1992, ‘The impact of PR on the media,’ MASS Communication Group, Australia
M. Pearson & R. Patching, 2008, Government Media Relations: A ‘Spin’ Through the Literature, Centre for New Media Research and Education, Bond University, Queensland, Australia.