In 2008 the award-winning investigative journalist broke the ultimate taboo of journalism, he went digging in his own backyard – Britain’s journalism industry. And he dug deep; exposing industrial content production practices and systems that negate professional ethics resulting in a surge of low-grade journalism.
It was received with much critical acclaim. And although some thought many of Davies’ arguments were “unduly pessimistic”, the subsequent Phone Hacking Scandal and Leveson Inquiry indicate that it may not have been pessimistic enough.
It took an unbiased and methodological approach. With help from researchers in Cardiff University, quantifying content in five of Britain’s most prestigious and popular newspapers and dissecting news titles across the political spectrum, The Daily Mail, The Times and Observer in focused case studies. Drawing on academic research and offering new insights it opened a window into modern newsrooms for consumers. But the view was not of hard-bitten newshounds chasing down leads for the public good but an industrial complex with a conveyor belt production model.
The scene and stakes are introduced by tracing the origin of the Y2K Bug. Davies illustrated how millions of taxpayers’ money was unnecessarily invested to safeguard against a minor threat based on an over-hyped news story. Dangerous misinformation was proliferated in journalism long before it audiences were exposed to viral fake news on social media.
Flat Earth News investigated the news factory, describing the information supply chain and providing insights into journalists’ newsgathering routines. By quantifying sources, Cardiff researchers found that wire copy and/or PR (second-hand sources) were at the core of 60% of the content in some of Britain’s most prestigious papers. 20% of articles contained elements of PR or wire copy while in 8% the source was unclear. They found that only 12% of the content analysed could be identified as original, self-generated journalism.
By describing the news gathering practices, Davies showed news audiences how narrow the supply lines really are. Damage to the supply chain by a decline in local news, increased reliance on wires services over foreign desks and an overreliance of public relations material all converged. While it acknowledged industrialisation was more efficient in terms of profitability, it highlighted the demise of basic journalists practices and underlined problem with centralisation that produces consensus providing more limited representations of the world.
Some of the ‘rules of production’ have no doubt changed. Those such as ‘run cheap stores’, ‘give them what they want’ and ‘go with the moral panic’ seem to be more pervasive. Other rules such as ‘select safe ideas’ and ‘show both sides’ may also have been changed by increased political polarisation as well as the demand for clicks.
The Dark Arts
The power and strategies of some public relations whose aim is to ensure that journalism works in a clients’ favour was also examined. It found skilled manipulation of journalists and the news cycle to direct attention and interpretation of events across business, crime and politics and was adept at concealing its own hand. It reminded readers that the agenda of public relations is usually ideologically in conflict with the aims of truth-seeking journalism. It also showed how some stories can become dislodged from original expert sources or context and taken over by waves stakeholders with agendas who then become the main sources for reporters. Despite the increase in second-hand information, the researchers found that only 12% of factual statements being fully checked and as much as 70% of factual statements being passed into print without any verification.
Better working conditions and better journalism
Time, Davies argued, is a journalist greatest asset – the more they have the better the quality of news. The industry ten years ago was charting reducing financial resources, cuts in jobs and a demand for reporters to increase output. According to Davies the supply and the pressure resulted in journalists often becoming passive processors of whatever information comes their way. The rise of social media for distribution has only quickened the pace and pressure.
Flat Earth News argues that what was expected, independence, self-generating leads, verification and truth-seeking, were the exception rather than the rule in day-to-day journalism. It showed audiences that the journalism produced did not match stated editorial ideals or ethical guidelines.
However, underpinning the criticism is an argument to make journalists working environment better with the knock-on effect of the industry producing higher quality information. The focus of the critical analysis is on the structures of journalism and underlines the need for industrial reconfiguration to better support journalists in their work resulting in a healthier the fourth estate for us all. There were no simple solutions because it was not a simple problem, a range of forces was converging on an increasingly financially precarious industry.
It’s getting flatter
Flat Earth News illustrated that efficiency for news producers does not directly correspond to quality journalism for audiences. The problems that were faced then, and today, are not old and have roots in the commodification of news and the industrialization of journalism. The central argument, that because of this the fourth estate is compromised and underperforming in its public service function, is still potent.
In the face of such an enormous contrast with what society expects of journalism and what is produced Davis agued “something fundamental has shifted.” With the rise of social media in the supply chain and user generated content as a steady source of news, something has shifted again.
Since Flat Earth News was published lacunas left by the industrialisation process have been filled, in part, by third party services such as digital verification initiatives like Storyful, fact-checking projects like Full Fact, court reporting services like CCC Nuacht and collaborative investigation groups like IFJN. But both industry and academia are still struggling to understand the social and political impact of these changes and the problem of centralisation in the supply chain remains.
But is it enough to improve the quality of the information environment? To determine the trajectory that journalism has taken over the past ten years and identify what audiences are exposed to, we would need to repeat some of the research projects. But if the rise in coverage of literal flat earth news is anything to go by, the signs are not good.