Churnalism, vested interests and propaganda

  • 27 March 2008
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In their ongoing rearguard action against encroachment from online media, professional journalistic standards are the newspapers' principle propaganda weapon. Columnist John Waters has, as ever, been in the vanguard. Following an opinion piece in The Irish Times in which he came out against the Internet, he faced off with blogger Fergal Crehan of in a debate on Newstalk. Waters denounced the “poisonous” culture of blogging and contrasted it with the “know your facts, check your facts” tradition of the press. When challenged to substantiate a claim in his column that 60 to 70 per cent of the Internet consists of pornography, Waters destroyed his own argument in spectacular fashion by responding “how do you back up statistics other than to say what is known in the public arena?”

One of the great things about the Internet is that it provides access to a staggering wealth of research papers, which allow one to quickly and easily check the veracity of the urban myths that often leak into the public arena. In this case, had Waters taken a couple of seconds to type “percentage of porn on the internet” into Google, he would have found a high-quality study from 2006, funded by the US Department of Justice and carried out by a professor of statistics at UC Berkley, which had even used subpoenas to gain unprecedented access to Google's web archives. It found that 99 per cent of websites contain no explicit content.

To further undermine Waters' case for the superior reliability of newspapers, the Irish Independent's report of the radio debate managed to get both the identity and the gender of the blogger wrong.

Coincidentally, the same blogger, Fergal Crehan, reviewed the Independent as part of's study of the Irish media. He found that only 15 per cent of its editorial content could be classified as original journalism. The bloggers' analysis of the Irish media painted a picture of an industry hugely reliant on regurgitating second hand information, often driven by PR and advertising. In February of this year, the results of a major study into the journalistic practices of the British “quality” press were published and they painted a very similar picture.
The extensive study, carried out by veteran journalist Nick Davies and a team from Cardiff University examined 2,000 news stories and concluded that only 12 per cent showed definite evidence of fact checking, while most of the rest could be classified as “churnalism”, material reprinted from news wires and press releases without independent verification. His book, Flat Earth News, presents several meticulously researched case-studies to illustrate exactly how government and corporate interests manipulate the news agenda. Davies' press background gave him an insight into the systemic factors affecting journalists' output, which Internet critics often lack. Rather than assuming that the problems were caused by lazy and corrupt journalists, he concluded that: “It is not journalists that create churnalism, it is the bosses running the companies.”

Commercial pressures mean most journalists have very little time or resources available to engage in background research. Powerful state and corporate bodies can devote significant PR resources to shape information so that it fits into news agendas and appears authoritative and reliable. Given the lack of resources available to do background research, professionally packaged PR material that is tailored to the needs of journalists has a high chance of setting the agenda.

For a particularly great example of how vested interests influence Irish media output, we can turn again to the Internet. The website hosts a lively discussion forum for the surprisingly large community of Irish property market “doom and gloom merchants,” as the taoiseach would say. One thread provides an detailed archive of the woefully over optimistic predictions, made by people with obvious vested interests, disseminated without challenge by the media. For example, in December 2006, the Irish Times published a series of expert predictions on the property market's prospects for 2007. All ten “experts” were representatives of institutions with a direct financial interest in selling houses and they all predicted continued steady house price growth for 2007. However, the grand prize for looking retrospectively foolish must go to Brendan O'Connor. On 29 July 2007, as the collapse of the global credit markets on the back of dodgy mortgages was starting, he published an article in the Sunday Independent entitled: ‘The smart, ballsy guys are buying up property right now.'

As the months have passed and the scale of the crisis in the property market has become clearer, the property supplements have gotten progressively thinner and even the bankers' forecasts have become gloomy. Yet the need to maintain the illusion of reliability means that the confident assertions of six months ago, since proved wrong, have simply disappeared. No newspaper is likely to publish a story which honestly assesses their role in the property market bubble. “Our vested interest in the property market caused us to disseminate biased and inaccurate views and pass them off as objective expertise. We helped divert the country's economic boom into a property bubble, but we made a few quid on the ads. Sorry.” While the newspapers would prefer to forgo such reflection, at least the Internet can help to keep such memories alive.