How we’re landscaping flat earth news with social media

I’ve been reading the latest Pew report on American Journalism ‘The State of the News Media 2013’ (overview here).
It’s a piece of work that, for those of us in print or broadcast. won’t inspire a great deal of joy.
But, among the standout points highlighted by Pew was something  that’s being increasingly discussed in my networks: The mainstream content vacuum and the rise of PR and Brand Specialist journalism. 
This is what Pew says: 

“Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to. At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media.  They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative.”

Pew’s survey says newspapers aren’t carrying the news they want, and our former customers – readers, advertisers, companies and individuals wanting to promote their stories – are more adept than ever at getting their own message across (I pondered the growth industry of brand journalism in a post last year). 
Pew also notes the 2008 research from Robert McChesney and John Nicholas examining how PR machines have accelerated to fill the spaces vacated by news-producing journalists.

McChesney and Nicholas wrote that in 2008, the year Nick Davies published his expose of churnalism and fact-failure in mainstream media and in particular the national press, Flat Earth News.  

Since then, churnalism has slipped into popular definition as ‘press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material…used to create articles in newspapers and other news media’ and it’s logical to conclude the phenomenon is more rife as a result of the PR and specialist company writers who are filling the breach.
There’s a website created by the Media Standards Trust to compare press releases against press articles, to show how much ‘churn’ has been applied.

I’m not sure that definition is exactly right, however. Also, many good journalists opt for a press office role. They push an agenda and you, as the news outlet recipient, know that. Come to that, the Sun’s Trevor Kavannagh – an award-winning journalist – also pushes an agenda – that of his employer. 

Mouseprice puts out handy quarterly updates using Land Registry Data – it’s checkable, relevant data and it’s useful for readers; if a national title runs that, with some additional content from, say, estate agents and basic cross-checking I guess you have to call it churnalism. Many readers would call it interesting.
PR firms always call media ahead of Budget day, offering 1st person opinion pieces from local experts. Every features desk in national and regional print press knows the national slimming club press offices proffer real life stories of mums who have shed 10 stone and discovered a new passion for kite surfing. 
It’s not lazy journalism; a journalist has done the work of putting together quite a lot of the information required – they just happen to work in a press office. 

Bad journalism leads to churnalism and flat earth news. There are so many examples, but the one that sticks with me is Blue Monday aka the Most Miserable Day of the Year.
Unchecked and incorrect information, widely reported; the worst kind of pr nonsense until Dr Ben Goldacre questioned the data, and everyone in the media shuffled their feet awkwardly.
Journalists from the BBC down were a party to that and there is no way the BBC was short of resources – cash or journalists – in 2005 when Blue Monday first surfaced. 
Maybe no one questioned it because the press release included an equation created by Cardiff University scientists attached to it and boffins, of course, are never wrong. 
On the plus side, as a result of that incident any a press release with an equation is viewed in the same light as green ink letters. So, every cloud and all that…

Flat Earth News also says churnalism exists because

No reporter who spends nearly 95 per cent of the time crouched over a desk can possibly develop enough good leads or build enough good contacts

But that was published back in 2008 (using research from 2006), when social media as a mass communication and collaboration tool had yet to explode.
Five years on, Andy Carvin spends 95% of his time crouched over a desk – look, he says so right here with great detail – and he is considered one of the finest journalists of his generation, curating information, repackaging content, interrogating the data it contains, and publishing with confidence. 
His network is online, his face-to-face chats are via Skype or Google+ Hangouts, he uses Twitter and Facebook to source information, make contacts, and then checks his sources.  

No one is going to accuse Carvin of churnalism – he’s a curator, a writer and (according to his bio a real-time information DJ; I‘m assuming that last part is ironic…) although he has been called a ‘one-man Twitter news bureau’. Not a bad epithet.

So many reporters are now  having multiple conversations on Facebook threads with multiple contacts, all at the same time about potential stories. I guess it’s the most open display of journalist conversation with sources – maybe most evident at a regional, local and hyperlocal independent level – that has ever existed.
Basic fact checking takes hardly any time on social media; the biggest danger is the rush to beat the competition. 
Be right or be first? The answer’s obvious and you can never get an audience’s trust wholly back once it’s gone

Anyway, the whole idea of churnalism and the rise of PR, Brand Journalism, Spin or whatever is Relevant To Mah Interests as I’m attending the Polis Journalism Conference on April 5, where the theme is Trust.
I’m taking part in the ‘Churnalism – How to Avoid It’ panel session.
Keynote speaker is – who else? – Nick Davies, and for all those who sigh at the prospect of yet another hashtag for an expensive conference drops into their Twitter stream this one is completely free (registration is here).  
Maybe I’ll see you there?

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