Sunday, 10 February 2008

'Not journalists, but churnalists'

I've kept hearing and reading about 'churnalism' over the last seven days and I'm not too sure what to make of it.

Nick Davies has just published the book 'Flat Earth News' which is based on research from our very own Cardiff University Journalism department (download the full report here).

Having looked at 2,000 UK news stories from the four quality newspapers and the Daily Mail, the researchers found that 80% were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second hand material provided by news agencies and by the PR industry. And when they looked for evidence that the facts in the articles had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.

Davies concludes that journalists have become 'passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interests'. To explain why this is happening, he points to the research finding that the average Fleet Street journalist now is filling three times as much space as they were in 1985.

Peter Preston, former Editor of the Guardian ('Damaged Limitations') isn't convinced however. In his review of Davies' book in Saturday's Guardian, Preston argues that the numbers of newspaper journalists has risen, for example The Guardian has gone from 260 to 430 editorial staff (excluding internet-only staff) in the last ten years. He also questions the researchers' finding that journalists have more space to fill. He's not the only one who's critical of the research. Journalists I've spoken to question the validity of the research (how can they possibly have traced the sources of the 2,000 articles) and believe journalists have relied on PR for stories for many years.

The lack of original stories that I and my fellow students bring to the newsroom for the twice-weekly production days does make you think that we may be more churnalists than journalists. The least we should do, and our tutors instruct us to do so, is fact-check all our stories. But I know this doesn't always happen in our busy newsroom.

I look forward to working full time in the industry to find out if I'll be churning out the stories rather than producing the well researched stories I'd be proud to stand by.

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