Flat Earth News
February 04, 2008

By Simon Bucks, Associate Editor.

The journalist Nick Davies has published a book called Flat Earth News, which says that much reporting is based on false statements which the media perpetuates and fails to question.

Like the people who blindly accepted that the world was flat, Davies says that journalists keep peddling these lies to the extent that they become received wisdom.

It's not, he says,because journalists are dishonest or stupid, nor because their proprietors force them to tell fibs. It is simply because journalists have to fill so many column inches, or time on air, that they don't have time to check their facts.

To support this, Davies commissioned research by Cardiff University financed by the Rowntree Foundation, which concluded that much journalism is heavily reliant on PR. They found that 19% of newspaper stories and 17% of broadcast stories were verified mainly or wholly from PR material. Davies has coined a word "churnalism" to describe the process by which journalists, he says, cut corners and reproduce press releases as gospel.

All this would be shocking and depressing, if it was as widespread a problem as Nick Davies says.

Undoubtedly, the commercial pressures are greater than they used to be. Apart from those at the BBC, journalists are employed by organisations whose purpose is to make a profit. We are, like most workers, measured by our productivity in quantity and quality. (Even Davies' own paper the Guardian - although guaranteed independence through its ownership by the Scott Trust - is still charged with making a profit -though not for shareholders.)

In the Sky newsroom (and we don't claim to be perfect) journalists spend a lot of time investigating and researching stories, checking facts and questioning the claims of public relations people. Doing, in fact, what journalists are paid to do. We take pride in getting stories right, and we beat ourselves up when we get them wrong.

But there's a wider point in this debate. Web 2.0 allows the public to play a much bigger role in journalism. If we get a fact wrong or miss out something important, it won't take long before someone lets us know. Big mistakes generate an avalanche of comment.

So there's no reason for any news organisation to keep reporting a flat earth story, if it isn't accurate. 

Written by Sky News, February 04, 2008


How dare Nick Davies insinuate that just because we are unable to leave the office as much as we like, that our stories are any less factual. Unless you are writing a colour feature which requires you to take in the surroundings, nothing is to stop you fact checking and getting a breadth of opinion to balance your piece. Habermasian sphere anyone? What's more, for many of us new-blood journalists who have had to endure four years of accademia and theory, the ethics and codes of conducts have been implanted so deep, we cannot imagine neglecting them. Phillip Schlesinger warns us against a media centric view of sources. They have their place and we have ours in this "tug of war." But by Nick Davies coming out and saying that we no longer look at a press release without questioning the agenda or seeking different opinions, he may as well be helping them win the struggle for dominance.

Remember what side of the fence you sit on. In a time of dwindling press circulation and severe distrust towards the majority of news media, Nick Davies should be heralding those who continue to light the way instead of making a doomsday prophecy out of examples of those who have failed.

Nick, interesting points. On the so-called Millennium bug, I remember attending briefings at the Cabinet Office by senior government officials, so they could explain how they were preparing for the possibility of a computer catastrophe. Yes, at the time perhaps the media failed to ask enough questions, as we did with the WMD 45 minute story. I still maintain though that most honest journalists do have a commitment to getting to the truth and exposing lies. But you are right, there isn't always the time.

Thanks for commenting on my book, Flat Earth News.The really interesting thing is to try to explain why media outlets around the world informed their consumers that: the millennium bug would disable most of the planet's computer systems; Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; Bill Clinton was guilty of a tidal wave of largely fictional scandal; numerous imaginary terrorist attacks were about to take place; and so on repeatedly, daily including the regular dribble of smaller falsehoods, such as the recent entirely incorrect story that police had rescued a group of Romanian children who had been 'trafficked' into this country. Why? Not because we're all dishonest hacks who couldn't care less (though our output is so often so bad that many of our readers could be forgiven for thinking that.)Not because our owners tell us to write lies. (It happens but not nearly as often as outsiders believe.) Flat Earth News argues in painful detail that we don't tell the truth because we don't know it: we work for organisations which have allowed the search for profit to overwhelm the search for truth. This insidious process takes many forms, and, with the help of a great many frustrated journalists, I've tried to trace it. It's a sad, bad picture. But I think it's the reality. And, as journalists, we should stop colluding with the easy assumption that the media should be exempt from the kind of scrutiny which we are so willing to bring to bear on others. Read all about it!

Journalism like many a profession relies upon the integrity of those within, otherwise years of work goes down the pan.
Take for example Hutchison 3G, obliged by law to provide subject access reports by virtue of the DPA 1998, proven to have not done so, remain further in contravention of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, yet when the matter was tackled within the High Court, little did I know politics internal would show its ugly face.
The reason I bring this to the table is two fold. (1) Corporates have long manipulated the law to suit their commercial culture and have been allowed to do so by many a master entrusted to provide justice. & (2) The fact that whilst individuals suffer from such malpractice, they are driven away to other avenues to deal with their complaint, yet when it comes to it, many a governing body within turns a blind eye.
Insofar as 24/7 news views, I suppose I had get my [Nu Shooz] back on, and tell those that thought there was a[Point of No Return] that the worm has turned and integrity is at the heart of anything we do,as always, the very reason why I stick with http://www.sky.com/news

As a result of the competition between journalists as to the first media to get a BREAKING NEWS,some news items are ruuhed out without proper research.
Obviously this has not been discouraged sufficiently by our laws. For instance there was an UNTRUE news story that was covered in many pages(including the front page) of a weekend newspaper when it was first published. When the newspaper found out that it was untrue,a MICROSCOPIC APOLOGY was published which I stumbled across ONLY because I was reading the advert next to it.It was hardly visible. Yet this practice is legal. There should be a law to compel an equal coverage for the apology if not more.
Moreover I think that people(especially journalists) are becoming more irresponsible about whatever they say about others. They feel that not everyone would like to go to court to get cross examined about their private lives in order to win damages and an apology.
I am 53 years and have seen enough injustice perpetrated by journalists such that I hardly have any respect for the profession.
When Blair and Bush talked about Iraq's nuclear weapons (with 45 munites' readiness to attack,it was the press that continued to expand on it and support it with fake theories to convince the 'man on Clapham Omnibus' that the truth was being told. Had they challenged it vigorously Bush and Blair wouldnot have used that as an excuse for their premeditated war.

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