“Churnalism”

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Turtles all the way down: Malcolm McLaren ransom-note aesthetic enjoys revival in Blighty book design circles. Would somebody please smuggle this book to South America for me on the next packet steamer to Santos?

British journalism | Hacks at work | Economist.com: In the course of trying to document for a Metropolitan colleague the informal Colonial terms of art “hack” (journalist) and “flack” (public relations professional), conversation turns to whether the Economist is any good anymore (I hold my hand, palm down, parallel to the floor, and make the wiggling motion denoting ambivalence).

Which leads to this bit of doggerel:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to!

It’s a review of a book by Nick Davies of the U.K. Guardian called Flat Earth News.

The Economist manages not to mention the title of the book even once in its review.

The Economist apparently thinks the Five Ws are optional. The name of the book is not as important as what the Economist thinks of the book.

The title does appear in an associated “opportunity to buy” “related items” box on the Web page.

In a related story, that whole crazy history about the great flood and the Ark and the raven and the dove and Shem and Ham and all that?

It’s from a best-selling book often known as the Holy Bible (portions released under other title).

Can’t think how we forget to mention it.

Mr Davies has the advantage of being familiar with his subject. That helps him avoid traps that less informed critics sometimes stumble into. He dismisses the idea that journalists are simply malicious gossip-mongers (although some are) and rejects wilder theories that there is a sinister, organised conspiracy to mislead the public (although the chapters on media manipulation by politicians and intelligence agencies are fascinating).

The Independent (U.K.) headlines its coverage “How the Spooks Took Over the News.”

And he largely exonerates most proprietors of attempting ideologically to influence their newspapers. Instead, he argues, it is the discipline of the market that ruins reporting. Treating journalism as simply another business has led to disastrous cost-cutting and slipping standards.

Research by Cardiff University:

Citing research done by Cardiff University, Mr Davies argues that the number of journalists in Britain is roughly the same today as it was 20 years ago. But the rise of supplements, websites and 24-hour services means that the same number of reporters must now fill three times as much space. The result he dubs “churnalism”: more demand for copy means more time spent in airless offices and less spent out and about gathering stories. That, he says, makes reporters vulnerable to the “hidden persuaders”—PR firms, press offices and advertisers—who now seem to have more power and influence than the journalists they ostensibly serve. The same research claims that 60% of stories in Britain’s quality papers are either recycled press-agency copy or rehashes of PR releases.

The Hidden Persuaders was a pioneering work of pop sociology by Vance Packard from 1957.

The Churning Fingers, Having Garbled, Gabble On

The thing that really burns me is when the churning of the press release turns out to be, not a rewriting of the thing, but an unwriting of the thing.

That is to say, some PR professional has done a very fine job of communicating the point of view of their client, with perfectly respectable supporting factoids, in plain, limpid English. They have anticipated questions you might have and come up with coherent answers to them. They have signed their names to it, taking entire responsibility for its contents, and provided contact information should have any questions.
But in the process of gisting this lovingly crafted work product, produced by someone who gets the big bucks to communicate effectively, and deserves them, the churnalist has garbled the thing terribly.

It must keep the flacks awake at night.

And who can blame them?

I mean, let’s not exaggerate the antagonism between the two professions, both of which require good typing skills and a rudimentary understanding of grammar (and rhetoric).

I read press releases for a (modest) living, basically.

Some (many) of them are useful and informative and helpful to me in my quest for knowledge.

Those go in the “these people are worth talking to” pile.

Others try to baffle me with bullshit.

Those go into the “noise and nonsense: ignore” pile.

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