Growing up, I remember wondering why major catastrophes were relegated to just inches of column space somewhere in the middle of the newspaper, while knocked-up celebrities farting into a maternity gown would crack the front pages. Then I started working as the editor of a U.K. tech news site at the dawn of citizen reporting, social media, and the Web, and I realized that the gulf between the newsworthy and the filler has been widened on an enormous scale. Here are just some of the reasons journalism has gone (and continues to go) to shit:
You can spot a press-sourced news article miles away. A cheap and easy way to push coverage into a publication is to commission a survey. You know the type: "New Study Shows Women Most Attracted to Morbidly Obese Men." The great thing about them is that they're a cinch to game until you get the result you want -- that hypothetical example was probably funded by Rascal Scooters and Hot Pockets, then given to the press so they could pick out the key talking points, without going into any detail about how they arrived there. You'll usually find the source in the last paragraph, if at all.
What, journalism can't take a day off every now and always?
This same story wound up in my inbox before Sky News ever covered it. To be fair, we all got the email at the same time. Travel insurance firm LV= commissioned a study finding that (surprise) our luggage is really valuable. Some PR hack typed up a press release, emailed it to a mile-long list of media contacts, and waited for lazy journalists to gobble up the low-hanging story.
Crisis specialists, meanwhile, are former journalists who help corporations and governments do PR damage control in the wake of some colossal cock-up. They're experts on what is, or isn't, a story -- provided it's about their client. If you've accidentally sold poisoned Tylenol to children or gassed a teeny-weeny factory full of 3,800 workers, Burson-Marsteller has a team of Dark Side journalists ready to rehabilitate your ass.
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"It turns out lightsaber pens were a bad idea. And also desks don't stop lightsabers."
Think that's pessimistic?
I was at a conference just a couple of weeks ago, and one journalist asked a PR rep if he was allowed to write a story. Edward R. Murrow didn't just spin in his grave at that query; he catapulted out of it like a jack-in-the-box and started choking bitches.
His choke-a-bitch face and his journalism face are the same.
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Your typical think tank has a long, impressive-sounding, and dull name that's hard -- or tedious -- to argue with. Something like "The Center for Expert Economic Excellence," a title that manages to convey trustworthiness and absolutely no other relevant information. Put crudely, think tanks are a way to push an agenda into public discourse, often representing some specific business or political interest. Think tanks are officially "independent," which only means that the shady figure in the trench coat waits until you're out of the room to hand over the comically large bag of money.
"We have standards."
The first time I really looked into think tanks was after hearing a radio report that said the U.K. should sell off its best welfare housing. At a time when there's a severe housing crisis and government-imposed austerity, they proposed that selling public housing would help matters. And what do you know: The trustees of the Policy Exchange are major conservative donors. Trustee Theodore Agnew has given 144,000 pounds to the Conservative Party since 2007. George Robinson, another trustee, has donated 389,000 pounds since 2004. Trustee Richard Ehrman just happens to have run a British property company for the last 23 years. No way he's biased about the housing market.
This happens in your country, too: In the United States, there's a man named Richard Berman. He's a former executive from Steak and Ale and currently does PR for much of the restaurant industry. He also owns the Employment Policies Institute, a think tank that, gee whiz, found evidence that raising the minimum wage was bad. Salon.com found that 83 percent of news stories that cited the Employment Policies Institute failed to mention that it was owned by an advocate of Big Hamburglar.
Journalists used to be able to keep up with the PR guys. In the past, there was closer to a 1:1 ratio of reporters to industry shills. Now there are four PR agents for every one reporter. It used to be a carefully balanced game of investigation versus obfuscation. Now it's more like investigation occasionally wanders onto the field where obfuscation plays and winds up getting sacked by 20 giant dudes with names like "T-Bone" and "The Compactor."
Newspapers are content farms. They have to be. The ad men's moneyrections only poke through their gilded loincloths when they're leering at spreadsheets full of cold, hard traffic stats. Even respected outlets, like the Guardian and the New York Times, have to give the occasional hat tip to whatever's going to replace planking next. We're just lucky it didn't come in the form of a 9,000-entry slideshow.
"Quit crying. This is how journalism works now."
There are legitimate attempts to maintain a certain standard, but with the unrelenting 24-hour rolling news cycle we've all grown accustomed to, every update to the most mundane story spawns a new article to hit Google's SEO G-spot. With that much noise out there, it's not at all surprising that running post-publication corrections is easier than thorough fact checking.
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Fact checking cuts into valuable drinking time.
Maybe you remember this article Newsweek published in 2012 titled "Why Barack Obama Needs to Go." It was slammed immediately for being filled with more bullshit than a steer's colon. There were so many basic factual errors that a writer with the Atlantic dedicated an entire article just to correcting them all. Politico reached out to Newsweek to ask "What gives?" and Newsweek replied with some classic buck-passing: "We, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material ..."
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Nobody make fun, they've had a rough time of it lately.
See, Newsweek doesn't have a fact-checking department. But at least they're not outright lying, like some British papers. We don't hate the Daily Mail just for plagiarizing us and bullshitting up your Facebook feed. They (and their fellows) have gotten so out of hand lately that the European Union set up a service specifically committed to fact checking British tabloids. It's the journalism version of the guy who breaks up the poop clogs in the sewers. It's a terrible job, but what are you gonna do? The poop won't stop coming.