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Friday, February 4, 2011

Journalism's silly secret
(updated rerun from 2008)

If your impression of how news reporters do their work was gained from watching TV programs like Superman and Lou Grant and the cop shows, you're mostly wrong.

Only a small percentage of reporting — in print, online or in broadcast media — actually comes from snooping around and digging up news.

When a reporter for the New York Times or Washington Post does get a legitimate scoop that's published in the morning, you can be sure that copycats at CNN, CNBC and the network news shows will quickly be spewing out the same story.

Investigative reporting remains the holy grail for reporters, the goal that wins praises, raises and Pulitzer prizes.

But in truth, most reporting is merely rehashing, replaying and relaying the manufactured news that is distributed by newsmakers who want publicity.

These newsmakers range from presidents, bureaucrats and generals who call press conferences or invite reporters to conduct interviews, to the makers of new gadgets who want the public to think that their stuff is wonderful and buy them, or to invest in their companies.

If you channel-surf between 6 and 7PM you might wonder how and why all of the TV news shows are reporting on the same events.

If the event is a war, forest fire, assassination or hurricane, it’s real news and the duplication makes sense.

But if the event is the announcement of a new Toyota, iPod, quarterback or movie deal, it’s more like free advertising than news. You’re seeing it all over because all of the news editors were fed the same press release, and all of the reporters were fed the same lunch.

There's an unfortunate trend in contemporary journalism, particularly in online journalism, to reporting by repetition and even reporting by robots.

Press releases are "read" by robots, which publish them for human beings and other robots to read.

Sometimes human beings do read the press releases, but they do little or none of the traditional fact checking that was once an important part of journalism. In many media outlets, there is an automatic assumption of accuracy and honesty that allows almost anything to get published and widely permeated.

If "news" arrives in the proper format, with authentic language, it is almost always believed and is not likely to be challenged by journalists who are in a hurry to publish faster than their peers.

Early on Thursday April 3, 2008 I launched a 90%-false press release as a joke, a test, and an example.

Within a few hours, it was picked up and published by websites around the world. Many news writers added original material to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the subject. Some made silly mistakes that showed that they did not even read what what was in front of them. Only one called me to verify the story and I told him that the news was a spoof.

Most press releases include a quotation from an executive vice president or director of something. But 90% of the time, the important person who is quoted never said those pithy and powerful words. The quote is a phony, invented by the public relations person (“flack”) who wrote the press release, and is trying to flatter the exec by getting his or her name printed in newspapers and magazines, or into blogs, websites and search engines.

Some reporters and editors are both lazy and competitive.

My first job after college was as assistant editor of High Fidelity Trade News, a magazine that went to hi-fi stores. Our direct competitor, aimed at the same audience, was Audio Times. Both publications, and dozens of other media, received the same press releases about new products, with the same fabricated quotes.

A lot of my work involved re-writing press releases for publication. I was supposed to filter out the superlative adjectives and make the news sound more like news than like advertising. On one of my first days, my boss Bryan returned an article I had written with a quote crossed out and a big PR BS written on it. Bryan told me to assume that the quotes were bullshit, and that we never published them.

The other guys had lower standards and higher self-image. They enhanced every quote into something like “in an exclusive interview with Audio Times, Sony marketing director Fumio Watanabe explained that the company’s new XRT-707 would revolutionize the...”

So, you shouldn't believe everything you read. But, you should believe this page.

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