Greg Watts just linked to an interesting article in the Financial Times about the recent spate of media hoaxes, like a boy supposedly trapped in a balloon and a fake US Chamber of Commerce press conference on climate change, and the wider questions of media credibility.
For me, the hoaxes are definitely a symptom of something wider, and not as worrying as the use of reheated press releases. One of the most revealing exercises we did at journalism school was reading The New York Times from cover to cover and identifying the likely original source of each article, i.e., the place where the journalist first got the idea to write the story. It was surprisingly easy to tell, and in a surprisingly high proportion, the answer was a corporate or government press release.
The New York Times, being a relatively well-staffed, carefully-edited paper, did at least interview other people, check the facts, and present as many sides of the story as it could. But still, the agenda of what it wrote about was largely being set by PR departments rather than real events or original investigative reporting.
These days, those concerns seem quaint. In a growing number of cases, not just in the freesheets but also in the ‘quality’ papers, the problem is not that their content is almost entirely determined by PR-created pseudo-events, but that they don’t even check these spoonfed articles or provide different sides to the story.
I don’t blame the journalists – it strikes me as largely a consequence of journalism entering the internet age without any plan or understanding of the business model. So news organisations have offered their content free online, with the predictable result that people no longer want to pay for paper copies. Advertising has fallen through the floor. Staff numbers have been slashed. And instead of having to create one edition a day, journalists now have to create unlimited editions all through the 24-hour internet news cycle.
With fewer journalists having to produce a lot more news a lot more quickly, it’s not surprising that they’ll latch onto any old hot-air balloon story that comes their way.