The Rise of PR Companies is Stifling Good Journalism

February 8, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

“If the press, a free press, be a foe to the tyrant – if its blessings be so great and innumerable, the question naturally presents itself, why may we not have one of our own?”

It’s over one hundred years since Samuel Cornish, an abolitionist, wrote these words yet we still don’t have a free press. Then corrupt governments controlled stories, now corrupt corporations are writing them.

A damning report published by Media Wise and researched by Cardiff University shows that newspapers are simply printing copy supplied by PR companies. Furthermore, they are doing so without any analysis and scrutiny.

The report looked at 2,207 news articles in five newspapers: the Guardian, Times, Independent, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. They concluded that 60% of the stories were comprised of material wholly or mainly supplied to them from PR companies or wire services – which when dissected also contained a large amount of PR. These figures don’t include stories where it was not obvious that PR or wire material was used, so in all likelihood the real figure is greater.

Even more worrying is the fact that the main source of the PR making its way into our newspapers is three times more likely to come from large corporations than it is from NGOs, charities and civic groups.

The report states that most journalists they contacted, “felt that there was less checking and contextualising of stories.” This was backed-up by the fact that just half of the stories sampled had any visible attempt to contextualise or verify the main source of information. So not only is PR driving the news agenda, it is doing so unquestioned.

Journalists have simply become conduits for big business to transmit their propaganda to the public. Instead of gathering information, questioning people in power and seeking out the truth, they have become copy editors. This is not an attack on journalists but the system in which they now operate. It may not be their fault due to increased pressure to produce more material for the web and the 24-hour news cycle but they could do something about it.

As the sales of newspapers continue to fall they are being forced to operate with smaller budgets. Editors respond by streamlining their staff, meaning fewer people have to write more. The result is a less credible product which the public don’t trust and don’t buy. It’s a cycle that must be broken. Editors need to take a stand and either employ more journalists allowing them to scrutinise and analyse more or produce less copy of a higher standard. Then and only then can they regain any public trust.

More damaging than what the PR material is saying is the fact that it is stopping more important issues making the headlines. While some PR is undoubtedly newsworthy and based on fact, much of it is not and with limited space available in newspapers it’s squeezing more important news out. When asking a panel of senior journalists to judge the news value of PR generated stories against those produced by other media outlets, the report found that “overall, our experts ranked those ‘alternative’ stories that received no mainstream coverage as significantly more newsworthy than those PR inspired stories that appeared in the mainstream press.”

The conclusions of the report were that their findings portrayed a “picture of the journalistic processes of news gathering and news reporting in which any meaningful independent journalistic activity by the media is the exception rather than the rule.”

We have all heard the PR gurus claim they can get almost any story into the newspapers and near the top of the news agenda. Perhaps that is not as hard as first thought, as it seems that the press is no more independent now than it ever has been. In fact the situation is even worse, as we are being fed information from big business under the guise of quality journalism. And as papers continue to try to produce more with less the situation is going to get far worse.

A full copy of the report can be accessed at

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This post was written by Matt Genner

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