Truth may be beauty – but is it accuracy?

20 Mar

FlatearthnewsNick 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?

5 Responses to “Truth may be beauty – but is it accuracy?”

  1. Michael Yorke 20/03/2008 at 12:41 pm #

    I’m reminded of Kevin Moloney’s seminal remark that
    ‘because PR serves interests and causes seeking their own ends, its messages may not have full, partial or ANY (my caps) truth statements in them’
    This is often shocking to new PR students, some of whom may already have had to confront the scepticism of their family and friends regarding the career choice.
    But this truth, and Richard’s helpful legal analogy, I believe lie at the very heart of an understanding of the true dynamics of PR.
    It also helps frame the eternal debate surrounding the reputation of PR. How often does one hear of the losing barrister in a case being accused of ‘not telling the truth’ or presenting a ‘one sided argument’ ?

  2. Richard Bailey 20/03/2008 at 1:25 pm #

    Thank you Michael. I was thiking of Moloney’s use of ‘hemispheric communications’ to describe the partial world view presented by public relations as I was typing this.
    (Good to see you yesterday, too. I’ve been uncharacteristically present in the real world in the last week!)

  3. Seth 20/03/2008 at 10:12 pm #

    Journalists know that press releases don’t contain the truth, rather a version of it that – if the PR agency or officer is doing their job – reflects the interests of the organisation that has issued it.
    PR is the trade off between lazy / busy journalists and organisations flogging stuff / ideas / attitudes.
    So we have news research in the hands of ‘business’ to fill newspapers (media) which is used to sell ad space back.
    little wonder there is much critical stuff about!

  4. Anderson 21/03/2008 at 3:17 am #

    “Veritas, quid est veritas?”
    Now then, do people want to hear the truth? What is the truth after all? Is accuracy treated as disguised truth? In this case both PR practitioners and Journalists are essentially the same – they will write what people will buy.

  5. Gareth Thompson 02/04/2008 at 11:24 am #

    It is a worthwhile book. There are many pages where the same central theme (and harking back to a “golden age” you mention) recurr.
    However, his in-depth analysis of the NatWest 3 alone makes it worth reading. I had not seen such dissection of their campaign before and it was a fascinating read.

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