New evidence shows that arts journalism is saturated by PR content. A recently published study using a two-week sample of arts journalism in Melbourne newspapers The Age and the Herald-Sun found public relations activity at 97% in The Age and 98% in the Herald Sun.

But the interesting question that arises here is not necessarily one of journalistic ethics and independence. Trying to untangle PR from journalism in arts coverage actually reveals something far more interesting about the relevance of these kind of cornerstone fourth estate principles to the specialist area of arts coverage.

Journalists who cover the arts and culture — the slipperiest round in journalism that might include everything from high art to gardening — operate quite differently to their main-room colleagues. Very little has been said about this but a few UK studies have broken the seal on it and offer some insights.

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A study that interviewed 20 arts journalists on their professional self-perception (amusingly subtitled Elitists, Saviours or Manic Depressives?) suggests that arts journalists subscribe to a completely different idea of “the public” to the political entity that informs the notion of the fourth estate. Instead, they “imagined a cultural public, enlightened by the therapeutic powers of the arts communicated through passionate and involved journalism”. Instead of seeking out truths that vested interests may be hiding — the supposed raison d’etre for all journalists — the study suggests a key objective of arts journalists is to passionately communicate the benefits of great art.

It is here that the fixed idea of journalistic independence from sources starts to blur for arts journalists. It is subjective and even crusading advocacy that is considered proper practice in coverage of the arts, something that flies in the face of the cool impartiality of the fourth estate. Another UK study of music journalists suggests a “lack of professional distance from sources and subjects” is not only commonly practised, but sometimes seen “as essential to their job”.

So perhaps arts journalists and arts PR practitioners have become so intertwined because they share some of the same objectives. A journalist who passionately communicates the ideas that go into the creation of an artwork is, at the same time, fulfilling journalistic and public relations functions.

The risks of the symbiotic relationship between arts journalists and arts PR people may be less to do with journalistic ethics and more to do with homogenised content. When the sections and features of Fairfax’s broadsheets are centralised nationally will we all be reading about the same blockbusters in art, film, literature and theatre all over Australia, instead of smaller local independent arts events?

A more interesting issue is not simply the use of PR in arts journalism, which it seems can be compatible with good arts coverage. But rather, changes in the way arts are being presented.

One of the most persistent grumbles about the state of arts journalism is the amount of “bite-sized” coverage given over to colourful double-page spreads of editorial picks, daily top 10s and what’s on columns.

A wide-ranging content analysis of US arts journalism conducted between 1998 and 2003 reported similar trends, showing that while arts features in the content sample had dropped by 5% over five years, the space given to bite-sized formats such as arts listings had risen by 7%.

Nearly half the sample of arts journalism from The Age and the Herald Sun was made up of this kind of “capsule” coverage where events are covered in less than 100 or even 50 words. Some people don’t call this type of thing journalism. But you only have to open the paper on the weekend to see how many of arts these little nuggets journalists are being asked to spit out in the name of arts coverage.

In this kind of capsule-coverage, arts PR becomes arts journalism. That is, running dates, venue and ticketing information, and promotional images cease to be a compatible function of arts PR within journalism, it is presented as arts journalism — and often with a byline to boot.

There seems to be a reconfiguring of values here as to what we want to know about the arts. It’s not their critical value and redemptive power, it’s simply when, where and how much? A connection might be made here between this and broader cultural shifts that have seen the arts become a popular and trendy inner-city leisure activity.

Massive spending over the past decade has seen the promotion of the arts in Melbourne as a trendy weekend thing to do that is intricately connected to the identity and affluence. The arts are now less of an intellectual pastime and more of an aspirational weekend pursuit that you can shop for like everything else. And so they appear in the paper as such. The creative economy has ushered in these kind of significant changes to the function of art within the fabric of cities and it is the shifting ground that arts journalists are working on. Very closely it seems, with their PR colleagues.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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