Are Irish newspapers becoming PR amplifiers?

Dublin City University have downplayed a report that churnalism — the practice of recycling news from agency reports and press releases — is rampant in the Irish press.

The Irish print media depends heavily on public relations material for its daily news content, according to a study cited by Politico, with between 11 percent and 21 percent of stories coming from press releases, and up to half of all stories containing PR material.

But an academic source at the northside university said there was no “study”.

“There was a student exercise last April that students did as part of their course,” said source, who declined to speak on the record. “But there was no study published, no official figures were ever published.”

Academics in DCU had considered doing a full study based on the results suggested by the student project, but no work has been done on the proposal to date.

“The problem is, it was done as a student exercise, and I said to the students, we may be able to do something with this, but it couldn’t be published as it is, would have to be tidied up first.”

“The students did very good work, but it wasn’t designed for publication, it was designed as an assessment exercise.”

Academic studies require cross checking at several levels before publication, to increase accuracy and dependability, including coding reliability tests. In this test, identical newspaper samples are checked by different teams, to ensure that the results are coded identically in each case.

Flat Earth News

“There were eight or ten groups in the class. Each group came in with findings, and they worked from similar templates, but there were variations in the way they applied them,” the academic said.

“We don’t have an academic basis on which to say it’s true.”

The postgraduate students were surprised by the extent of churnalism uncovered by the student project.

“What was discovered by the students was similar to much of what Flat Earth News exposes. Before the study, they were sceptical they would find Flat Earth type numbers in Ireland.

The study, carried out by postgraduate students in 2010, found that between 11.6 percent and 21 percent of newspaper stories across eight major daily publications were mainly or entirely generated by public relations material, and that between 32 percent and 50 percent of all stories contained elements of public relations material. The worst offender was the Irish Times (21 percent of stories comprising all or mainly public relations material) with the Evening Herald scoring best (11.6 percent comprising all or mainly public relations material).

The other newspapers examined were the Daily Mirror (12 percent), the Irish Examiner (16 percent), the Daily Mail (13 percent) and the Irish Sun (13.6 percent). All the figures for the Irish Independent are currently unavailable, but the students found that 46 percent of all stories in the Independent contained public relations material – a figure which is broadly in line with the other newspapers.

The figures confirm that newspapers are struggling to find content to fill their pages each day. In an era where journalists are often expected to write up to ten stories a day, the temptation to lift information from wire sources such as Reuters or directly from press releases has become too great.

Mutton dressed as lamb

Nick Davies wrote in Flat Earth News — a critique of modern journalism — that newspapers were awash with what he called “churnalism” which involved “journalists who are no longer out gathering news but who are reduced to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.”

The lesson? Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

A senior reporter in the Independent group said the results would be understandable, given declining staff numbers and and a growing PR industry.

However, he said that paradoxically, cutbacks were improving the quality of journalism, as reduced page counts meant there was less demand for “filler”, and more quality stories in any given issue.

“It depends how churnalism is defined. Is it a press statement from a politician about a breaking story?”

“In fairness to our lot, they’re sceptical enough if you come to them with a party political press release. Generally they like more organic stuff, or Freedom of Information stories. There is still a scepticism about press releases, they are regarded as mutton dressed up as lamb.”

“The ethos is for quality,” said one Irish Times journalist. “But quality can suffer everywhere depending on how resources are deployed.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but when there’s an element of speed as a deadline approaches, but we do fact check our work. I have seen agency wire copy I would not care to use.”