Monday, 12 September 2011

How modern journalism works

There's a story over in Ireland/N. Ireland about a Presbyterian minister who made a speech at the Sinn Fèin Ard Fheis. It's a big deal because even though 18th and 19th century Irish republicanism and nationalism was often led by Protestants, the political struggle became polarised between competing sectarian groups.

But anyway, that's not the bit of the story I want to moan about. It's this: in the Guardian's media coverage, there's some criticism of the mainstream British media not covering the event. One of the readers, Ruth Gledhill, suggests that it's not the newspapers' fault:
I am afraid, in the modern world of competing media demands and top flight PR, it is rather up to these people, or their PRs, to make themselves known to newspapers if they care about their activities being covered or not.
Ruth is the Daily Telegraph's religion correspondent. I've even got one of her books. She probably calls herself a journalist.

But I always (naively) thought that journalists chased stories, decided which the important ones were, and wrote them. But I'm old-fashioned. Nick Davies' Flat Earth News demonstrates that 80%+ of newspaper stories originate in PR and press releases, because journalists' resources and time are limited, and reporting is expensive.

What's new and shocking about Ruth Gledhill's claim is her plain declaration that this isn't a bad thing. To her, journalism is simply soaking up PR releases. If you want something covered, shout about it. This means that news isn't any longer defined by trained journalists with a nose for a story: it's defined by an industry with no commitment to the public sphere. PR agencies are answerable only to their clients, not to the public. (And if you don't have a PR agent, you're not news, to her).

Ruth Gledhill has abandoned any claim to journalistic independence or the primacy of the public sphere. This actual story isn't earth-shaking, but the Daily Telegraph's decision to hand its pages over to PR companies is.

Ruth's no longer a journalist. She's a typist.

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