A veteran journalist has found his profession wanting in fulfilling its basic mission—in Great Britain. Oddly, his book, Flat Earth News, is unavailable in the United States, although many American media critics might find that his findings hold true on this side of the Atlantic as well.
Nick Davies asked researchers at Cardiff University to analyze coverage at The London Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mail. “They found that a massive 60 percent of these quality-print stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material and a further 20 percent contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR to which more or less other material had been added,” Powers reports.
Thus, about 12% of the stories in the Cardiff data base could be classified as what we now call “enterprise journalism” and what was once known as “shoe-leather reporting.” The Cardiff researchers did point out that British reporters today have about two-thirds less time to check their stories as their media counterparts did 20 years ago.
Nevertheless, “The researchers went on to look at those stories which relied on a specific statement of fact and found that with a staggering 70 percent of them, the claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all,” Powers writes. Indeed the Guardian is so infamous that there is even a web site devoted exclusively to exposing its inaccuracies called guardianlies.com.
Of course, neither Powers, as quoted, nor another veteran journalist, John Mecklin, in his glowing review in Miller-McCune magazine, mention how many of these publications and their favorite sources are decidedly left-of-center.
Their point about the astounding degree of neglect for essential reportorial practices remains valid. I could see this trend with a vengeance as an intern in the Senate press gallery a quarter century ago.
I watched today’s press releases become tomorrow’s “news stories” with regularity. The major change in the “find 8 differences between them” observational exercise was the substitution of a contact person at the top of the letterhead with a “veteran newsman’s” byline.
Moreover, one of my mentors lamented that in coming from a southern daily to the nation’s capital, he expected to find the best of journalism but instead saw the worst. He too noted the startling degree of recycled press releases transformed, none too adroitly, into news stories.
Still, without factoring in the extent to which the reflexive politics of reporters governs the “sources” they rely on, any lessons that such as Powers and Mecklin pass on to us are left in a vacuum. Mecklin proves as much in his commentary. “They may constitute only 12 percent of some organizations but in others—let us take The New York Times and The Washington Post as examples—enterprise and challenging official misstatement remain central values, from the executive suite down,” Mecklin writes.
Accuracy in Media has filled reams of copy by cataloging the inaccuracies of both papers when they selectively apply their “central values.”
Just compare the unfavorable stories that appeared on the Clintons during his presidency with the critical coverage that surfaced in her recent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against Senator Barack Obama, D-Illinois. For that matter, count the number of critical stories that most media have run on the junior senator from Illinois.
“The Clintons couldn’t believe the press coverage that they got in this campaign,” a GOP congressman recently noted. “The media actually treated them as though they were Republicans.”
Here’s another test that you can give The New York Times and the Washington Post. A very basic journalistic activity that all newspapers engage in is that of obituary writing.
Look at the competence with which both newspapers handle this task and ask yourself if you can trust any of their other reporting. For example, just see how many obituaries in both papers refer to “Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee” despite the facts that:
1. The Wisconsin Republican never served in the lower chamber of the U. S. Congress; and
2. He could not, therefore, sit on that committee.
Is it asking too much for cub reporters, let alone senior editors, to learn these two rudimentary facts after two decades of a formal education—since many of them have Master’s degrees? Apparently.