The Churnalism debate 06.07.2011

Last night much of the media world descended on Parliament for the launch of “Hacked Off”, the campaign to push for a public inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. There is no doubt that this is the issue of the moment, at a time when public trust is the media is perilously low. This was the theme of another Media Standards Trust event which was also held last night: the Churnalism Debate.

Unsurprisingly, the debate kicked off a little later than planned, as we waited for MST Director Martin Moore to arrive from Parliament. As he aptly remarked, the issue of media ethics had exploded over the past 48 hours. It shows little sign of abating, as it was revealed this morning that the bereaved families of the war dead were amongst those who had been hacked.

It would have been absurd to have ignored the phone hacking issue, but the real focus of this event was another facet of the overarching issue. The relationship between PR and journalism is one which has occasionally raised some eyebrows. Earlier this year, the Media Standards Trust launched their website churnalism.com. This is a search engine which allows users to compare press releases with articles which are available online, to determine how much is copied and pasted.

The motion for last night’s debate was the deliberately provocative: “This house believes news articles based on press releases should be marked ‘advertorial’”. The panel was chaired by Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre. The debaters were filmmaker Chris Atkins; David Higgerson, who is Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror Regionals; Trevor Morris, a Visiting Professor in PR at the University of Westminster, and James Randerson, The Guardian’s Environment and Science Editor.

Fiona Fox opened the discussion with a quote from New York Times journalist David Barstow: “The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up.” Chris Atkins was the first to address this point. He claimed that the public are entitled to “as much information as possible about the source of information.” He condemned hiding such sources as “dishonest”, and asked why journalists don’t tell the public when the source of the information is a press release. He explained that this was because “we don’t trust PR” since it is “not their job to tell the truth” but to “represent the views of the person who pays them.” He also made the ironically delivered statement that: “Sometimes people in PR lie.”

He went on to qualify his remarks with the assertion that there is a “sliding scale”, but that nonetheless there should be some reference to sources contained within the relevant articles. He conceded that this need not use the word “advertorial”, a sentiment which was roundly accepted. Atkins suggested that the result of this could be that the public would start buying papers which don’t church as much, so people could actually “start making money through trust”. He ended with the point that although this is a time marked by the “disintegration of trust”, it is also a “moment when we can start to rebuild that trust”. He proposed that increasing transparency about the influence of PR was one way to achieve this.

David Higgerson put forward the opposing argument, asking what this suggestion would actually achieve, beyond confusing people. He explained that there is already an “advertorial” section in regional newspapers, which is separated from the news and means something quite different. He asserted that it is “a myth that PR is damaging journalism” and noted that when you pay for a press release you are not paying for a “guaranteed appearance in a newspaper, or a guaranteed position in that newspaper.”

Instead, he emphasised the importance of editorial judgement, which is still the deciding factor in what is published. “Not all press releases are bad,” he said, “but it is our job as journalists to determine whether they are right.” He further remarked that press releases have become the “preferred method of communication”, and that “revealing the presence of press releases in all stories dilutes (the impact) of revealing where a company has been evasive or will only communicate in press releases.” His conclusion was that the problem was not churnalism, but the way we use it.

James Randerson began by recalling the Johann Hari affair, which has been eclipsed by recent events. Randerson believes that, despite allegations to that effect, this was not “plagiarism” or “churnalism” but was “just dishonest and odd.” He felt that it conveyed a paternalistic attitude towards the reader, which is “out of kilter with the times and the industry.” He too argued in favour of increased transparency and linking to sources, on the grounds that the readers could then decide what they think is appropriate. This, he thought, “could turn into a self-policing system for journalists”, who would be embarrassed to admit to using press releases. He recognised that he was arguing for an “ideal position” and that there are “huge pressures in the news room”. Marking articles as “advertorial” was not necessary, but it was “just about being honest with the reader.”

Trevor Morris was the last to speak against the motion. He began by saying that he wished to take a broader view, and recognise that the media do “absolutely” use a lot of PR. He claimed that dependence on PR was not a bad thing, because without it we would have “far less news, views and products”. He also made the important point that “small players can access PR, but not advertising”, and also that PR attracts advertising, which is an important source of income.

He went on to assert that PR has not taken over the media, remarking that “the vast majority of press releases are rejected and get no coverage”, since the “journalist is the ultimate arbiter of what goes in and how it is interpreted.” He described PR as “fundamentally amoral”, since is “depends what you think of the message”. He referred to the semantics to back up this point. “When we like the message we call it a campaign”, he noted. “If we are unsure we call it PR, if we hate it we call it propaganda, or spin.” This does seem to be supported by the reality of the situation. He concluded by saying that on a macro level, “PR is vital to support media and freedom and choice”, and that “people should be open and clear about PR but tick box techniques won’t work.”

There followed a lively discussion of questions from the chair. Discussing the distinctions between different types of PR, Chris Atkins pointed out that “charities have their own agendas” and will “put things out that aren’t true”, referring to Live 8 and Save Darfur. The debaters also questioned whether there should just be “more original journalism”.

The debate was then opened up to the floor. The consensus seemed to turn towards the idea that labelling everything based on press releases as such would “increase mistrust in PR and the media”, an idea which was expressed by Fiona Fox.  From the floor, Martin Moore pointed out that “technology makes certain types of transparency much easier”, and so raised expectations, but these had not been met. This led him to ask: “What direction are we going in?”

Trevor Morris responded to this question by saying that he was “not hugely pessimistic” and thought that “readers or viewers (would) turn away from things which are too crass” and “pay for objective impartiality, research and credibility.” He also expressed his hope that the market would “sort it out.”

Ultimately, those who argued against the motion won the popular support, and it was agreed that marking articles based on press releases as “advertorial” was something of a “blunt tool.”

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