Nick Davies’s much-discussed Flat Earth News is easily summarised: ‘Journalism today is little more than churnalism. 60% of newspaper stories are uncritically recycled from public relations and news agency sources.’
It’s easy to view this as an old-fashioned journalist’s lament for a mythical golden age when reporters had time to investigate stories, and when proprietors were benign media owners. (He dismisses today’s owners as ‘grocers’ because of their focus on margins.)
Because this 400 page book is so easily summarised and dismissed, I was at first reluctant to buy it. But it’s a much better and more worthwhile read than you might imagine. Take one small example.
Davies describes the primary purpose of journalism as ‘telling the truth’. But he distinguishes truth from accuracy. A news release from a PR source should be accurate, for example (names spelt correctly, facts checked) but cannot be truthful, since truthfulness would require a balanced account including mention of competitors or critics.
This truthfulness v accuracy issue is at the heart of the Wikipedia debate below. Again, contributions to Wikipedia should be accurate; but the entry can only become truthful once a balanced judgement has been reached.
In this analysis – and in my words – the journalist is like a High Court judge. Knowledgeable, attentive, patient and fair. The public relations practitioner is like a barrister: professional, persuasive and necessarily biased.
I’ve not finished reading Flat Earth News so I’ll hold off making further comments, but this image of magisterial and impartial journalism doesn’t sound truthful, does it?