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WCSJ: Flat Earth News with Nick Davies – a discussion on the breaking of journalism

Nick Davies is one of the most interesting figures in UK journalism, not least because of the publication of his excellent book Flat Earth News. On his website, he describes the book as “[taking] the lid off newspapers and broadcasters, exposing the mechanics of falsehood, distortion and propaganda; naming names and telling the stories behind stories.”

In a superb session, Davies (ably interviewed by Jeremy Webb of New Scientist) set out his thesis about the broken state of science journalism, littered with pithy turns of phrase and good-natured storytelling.

Davies’s key assertion is that journalism is about telling the truth. To him, telling the truth is a “necessary but not sufficient” part of the job. And if the primary function of a journalist is truth-telling, the primary activity should be checking and gathering evidence. Be it through reviewing literature, conducting interviews or checking sources, the final goal is the same – to “construct a story entirely out of statements of fact.”

The notion of journalism as truth-telling may be met with surprise and denial by many of you, and Davies would probably sympathise. He has been a journalist for over 30 years and in his mind, things have changed. “News media should be reliable sources of truth”, he says, “but they are riddled with stories that appear to be true but actually aren’t upon checking.” The situation is a lot like the widespread belief that the Earth was flat – a concept that was taken as fact until some serious checking was done. Hence, the name of the book.

The key question then becomes why we produce stories with “falsehood, distortion and propaganda”? He says, “There are certainly a lot of lazy hacks out there – some of them are drunk as well. But that’s a relatively small factor.” To Davies, it’s a “structural problem”. Modern journalism has been saddled with a structure that is likely to produce inaccurate stories. As he so eloquently put it, “Newsrooms are taken over by corporations that have injected logic of commercialism and rejected the logic of journalism.”

Corporations (Rupert Murdoch’s name was mentioned more than once) have ignited two main problems – they have reduced the time that journalists have and they have increased their workload. “So instead of making contacts, finding stories and checking facts, more and more journalists sit at desks and recycle press releases from world of PR and wire news. Not only do we recycle, but we do it without checking properly.”

Commercialism also affects the way that journalists think about their work – they go for quick writes, safe sources, safe stories and things that everyone else is writing. These structural problems also serve to crush the spirit of new talent. “There are a lot of energetic, talent people who come into journalism but if you work for an organisation that genuinely doesn’t allow you to do your job properly, the talent can get frustrated.”

Davies has commissioned studies into this phenomenon and he read out some stats to illustrate the scope of the problem. The average national reporter in the UK is now filing three times more space than in 1995, so they only have a third of the time per story. The researchers took a sample of UK home news stories from the respectable broadsheets and found that only 12% showed evidence of thorough fact-checking, while 54% were wholly based on PR.

The problem is worse for international coverage. There are 80 countries with no news bureau from two main agencies, Reuters and the Press Association, including surprising ones like New Zealand, Canada and Saudi Arabia. And yet many news outlets rely entirely on these agencies for their international coverage, so only very sensational (and usually bad) events from these places get through. In an era of 24-hour radio and TV news, we are filling them with less and less stuff

Into this void of time and fact-checking come the PR agencies. They’re not “intrinsically bad” but the problem is another structural one. “Pull back and every story begins with a judgment call”, says Davies. Which source to call? Which angle to pursue? These need to be made with news values, which are “about serving readers’ needs not their wants, and about discovering important things”. The main problem with PR is that they make those judgments on the behalf of journalists.

So what’s the answer? Davies offers none, and he’s pessimistic on the matter. “It’s naive to assert that all problems have solution. It’s entirely possible that the collection of problems is fatal. We might be in the same position as arrow-makers who were very successful until the advent of bullets. Maybe our business model is broken forever.” In all his talks with various people, he has never met one who knows “the solution”. To Davies, the idea of bloggers and citizen journalists filling the gap is “naive nonsense” and a “loathsome alibi” offered by media executives for firing staff.

Google News is part of the problem too. Davies bills it as an “absolute journalistic disaster” for “aggregating news coverage that’s crap”.  The problem will worsen as the number of journalists decline. Who will provide the replacement raw material? Will it be PR agencies? We could enter an “era of information chaos” all while globalisation requires us to raise the level of reliable information.

On further questioning, Davies relented that it is possible for press officers to work together with journalists if they share the common values of truth-telling, accuracy, scrutiny and so on. As Fiona Fox asked, “Can we move into the place of PA and Reuters? Can we can make the media?” Yes, but only if the journalist can challenge what the press officers or PR people say. Otherwise, they become  a “passive vehicle for the PR person’s choice.”

The business side started going wrong when “corporations ransacked our organisations for profit and damaged our ability to do our job properly”. At the point when journalism was weakest, the Internet and the recession have dealt it fatal blows. Now, advertising revenues scattered across websites from which it won’t return once the credit crunch fades. The future may be electronic but then we lose circulation income. Where does funding come from that would sustain serious journalism?

Can blogs help to fill the void? After the session, I asked Davies about his views on fact-checking after the point of writing, through the opinions and feedback of knowledgeable people via comment boxes and counter-posts. Perhaps one of the changes required of modern journalists is to be open to that sort of feedback? As far as that process stands, Davies sees it as a good thing but he is wary of feedback from idiots who can steer things in the wrong direction, and PR agencies, who are extremely active on social media, often in stealthy ways. How is an average reader, or indeed a journalist, meant to differentiate between these three strands? There are, of course, positive examples, such as Wikipedia’s immense capacity for self-correction.

More on science journalism


8 thoughts on “WCSJ: Flat Earth News with Nick Davies – a discussion on the breaking of journalism

  1. As long as journalism is a profit-making enterprise, and as long as corporations have a legally-binding fiduciary duty to maximise shareholder value, but no similarly binding duty to tell the truth, this problem isn’t going away. It’s not just a problem with journalism, it’s a problem with our fundamental ideas regrading the core purpose of economic activity. Making money is more important than doing a good job, and the only really important metric is profitability. If it’s more profitable to tell lies than the truth, that’s exactly what will happen.
    This is also the root of the melamine-contaminated milk scandal, and too many others to mention. Profit trumps all other considerations.

  2. Ironically, there’s very little evidence to show that ‘people used to think the Earth was flat’ – it’s an urban myth in itself. Even the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks absolutely knew it was round.
    Unless anyone can show sources demonstrating that Earth Flatness was a commonly held belief at any time in the past…

  3. How refreshing to read about a country where this might be true. I hope someone does a comparison of outcomes to the USA where the courts have made clear that the owner of a news source is entitled to decide what is and is not going to be published and direct the reporters about what facts to consider (the Monsanto bovine growth hormone case, I think, is the most recent example).

  4. Public Service News Outlets. It seems to me that the problem is the demand for profit-making. In Sweden we have Public Service channels (tv and radio) that are more independent from that sort of thing. It’s not perfect, of course, but it has the advantage that they can be charged with checking facts and telling the truth first and foremost.
    Like healthcare and law-enforcement, journalism, in my mind at least, is too important to be left solely in the hands of corporations.

  5. Christopher | July 1, 2009 8:45 AM:

    Unless anyone can show sources demonstrating that Earth Flatness was a commonly held belief at any time in the past…

    AwesomeRobot | July 1, 2009 4:53 PM:

    Christopher, I was going to say the same thing! Any culture advanced enough to make ocean-faring ships absolutely knew the Earth is a spheroid.


    The Flat Earth Wikipedia article which AwesomeRobot links to:

    Belief in a flat Earth is found in mankind’s oldest writings. In early Mesopotamian thought, the world was portrayed as a flat disk floating in the ocean, and this forms the premise for early Greek maps such as those of Anaximander and Hecataeus of Miletus. The same belief is found in the Old Testament[5] and in ancient Egypt.

    Belief in a flat Earth became quite rare (around the Mediterranean) by 300 BCE , much earlier than many people assume, but it was probably widespread at some time in the distant past.

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