The dangers of ‘churnalism’

There is a new scare word stalking the world of journalism, although public relations practitioners probably don’t mind. The word is “churnalism”, coined in a new book by veteran journalist, Nick Davis.

In Flat Earth News (Chatto & Windus), Nick Davies exposes the failings of the prestige (mostly print) media in Britain. His investigation started with the question of how the media could have been so wrong about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The more he looked, the more Davies found “falsehood, distortion and propaganda running through the outlets of an industry which is supposed to be dedicated to the very opposite, i.e. to telling the truth”.

The journalistic practices Davies found, belong in a recycling plant rather than in an industry claiming to produce the “first draft of history”.

Under increasing commercial and time pressures in the global 24-hour news cycle, having to do more work with fewer staff and less time, journalists increasingly and uncritically repackage existing material rather than produce their own work.

With the help of researchers from Cardiff University, Davies uncovered an astonishing reliance on material from wire agencies (like the UK Press Association, the equivalent of Sapa in South Africa) or public relations material.

The study found that an incredible 60% of print stories consisted “wholly or mainly” of wire copy or PR material, with a further 20% containing such material with some additions. With researchers unable to ascertain the source of eight percent of the stories, it left only 12% of stories of which it could be said that they were produced by reporters on the basis of their own investigation.

To make things worse, in only one percent of the cases did newspapers admit to using wire or PR copy, instead misleadingly labelling it as “by a staff reporter” or something to that effect.

In 70% of the stories the wire or PR copy was not even fact-checked before it went into print. And this is not the much-maligned tabloid press or free newspapers, but the so-called “quality” press – The Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph.

This, then, is part of what Davies calls “churnalism”: “This is journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell their readers the truth about what is happening on their patch. This is journalists who are no longer out gathering news but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.”

In interviews, journalists complain about working conditions that keep them chained to their desks, turning out copy rather than going out to conduct investigations, do interviews or observe events first-hand.

Broadcasting seems to have been especially hit hard by the demands of the new converged newsroom – BBC news stories had to be filed even more quickly to get breaking news onto the website and on a “ticker” on the screen within five minutes of an event, with a full story of ten paragraphs within 15 minutes. In the process, fact-checking and substantial contextualisation goes out the window.

Flat Earth News has met with fierce criticism from Davies’s journalistic colleagues, as one could expect from work that breaks the Fleet Street rule of “dog doesn’t eat dog”. In the industry newsletter Press Gazette, a number of journalists accused David of peddling the same kind of distortion and falsehoods that he accused other journalists of.

Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, denounces what he sees as Davies’s assumption that there once was a golden age of journalism, when journalists had more time to do proper research and fact-checking. According to Preston, journalism has always been plagued by the type of problems that Davies describes, even in a different context.

The media watchdog organisation Media Lens provided a more radical critique, citing Davies’s apparent neglect of structural forces in the corporate media and his position as a media insider that leads him to suggest reforms rather than radical change of what remains a commercial enterprise at its core.

What relevance does Flat Earth News have for South African journalism? Almost universally, journalists are not particularly fond of criticism. In South Africa, because of the ignominious history of apartheid repression of news (and, lest we forget, media complicity with or limited resistance to the apartheid regime), criticism of the media is often framed as an attack on press freedom.

The fact that the print media in South Africa is controlled by a small number of conglomerates, with journalists working for these sister publications forming an in-crowd, contributes further to a “dog does not eat dog” attitude.

The press, it seems, reserves its criticism largely for the SABC or the tabloids. Academic criticism is often dismissed as emanating from an ivory tower, and it would be interesting to see how much of the criticism or guidelines from independent organisations like the Media Monitoring Project or the Freedom of Expression Institute make its way from talk shops down the hierarchy to the newsroom.

There have been studies that pointed to similar, worrying trends in South African newsrooms. The South African National Editors’ Forum commissioned two audits into journalism and management skills in 2002 and 2005 and pointed out serious problems. In their study of paid-for content in South African print media (Advertising in the News, HSRC Press, of which a shortened version will appear in Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies this month), Adrian Hadland, Lesley Cowling and Bate Felix Tabi Tabe have found a disturbing pattern of commercial pressures on editorial work.

Perhaps Media Lens would criticise all three of these reports for their assumption that the mainstream print media could resist commercial pressures and retain editorial independence if they worked hard enough at it, without recognising that these media remain at core commercial enterprises that can only reform to an extent within the limits available to them. But if media want to see themselves as watchdogs, they should be willing to be scrutinised in turn – from the outside as well as the inside. And then do something about the results of such scrutiny.

*Dr Herman Wasserman teaches Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University in the UK. He is editor of the journal “”Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies”.

This article first appeared in The Media magazine and on on TheMediaOnline.co.za. To get the inside scoop on the media industry, subscribe to TheMediaOnline’s email newsletter.

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