Monday, 15 March 2010    

by Wendy Bacon, Alex Taylor and Sasha Pavey

The survey was carried out by UTS investigative journalism students and Australian Centre for Independent Journalism student interns in the spring semester of 2009.

A five-day period from Monday, September 7 to Friday, September 11, 2009 was chosen, independently of Crikey, in which students analysed news articles from 11 rounds across 10 print versions of Australian metropolitan newspapers.

More than 2203 articles were analysed but the study did not include every article in every issue.

The survey provides a snapshot only. A survey over an extended period of time using sampling methods would be necessary to establish longer-term patterns and trends.

The chosen rounds were:

  • Politics;
  • Business/finance;
  • Education;
  • Technology/innovation;
  • Police;
  • Rural;
  • Health/science/medicine;
  • Arts and entertainment;
  • Environment/energy; and
  • Motoring.

The publications were:

  • Australian Financial Review; (Fairfax-owned national business daily)
  • The Advertiser (Adelaide);  (News Corporation-owned tabloid based in Adelaide)
  • The Courier-Mail (Brisbane);  (News Corporation-owned tabloid based in Brisbane)
  • Daily Telegraph; (News Corporation-owned tabloid based in Sydney)
  • Herald Sun; (News Corporation-owned tabloid based in Melbourne)
  • The Mercury (Hobart); (News Corporation-owned tabloid based in Hobart)
  • The Australian; (News Corporation-owned national broadsheet)
  • The Age; (Fairfax-owned Melbourne broadsheet)
  • Sydney Morning Herald; (Fairfax-owned Sydney broadsheet)
  • The West Australian. (West Australian Newspapers Ltd-owned tabloid based in Perth)

Students were assigned one round or two small rounds across two publications. This method was chosen because it would mean students might notice if a similar story appeared in two publications and to encourage familiarity with the round.

Using Google search engines and the Factiva news database, students investigated the origin of news and feature articles through searching for media releases, earlier versions of the same direct quotes and phrases in the articles.

Initially students were asked to identify media releases preceding stories. Many media releases were identified: however, as the research progressed, it quickly became apparent that media releases were only one indication of PR initiated journalism. Many stories that are driven by public relations cannot be sourced back to a media release. For example, exclusive interviews, publicity events, specialist email alert services, stories directly tied to and produced to support advertising, public relations stories targeted and prepared for particular journalists are all part of journalism in which public relations sets the agenda.

So for each story a judgement was made: we developed a broad code called “PR driven” — all stories that were initiated by some form of public relations or promotions were coded as “Y” for PR driven.  Where there was uncertainty, researchers attempted to interview reporters and PR professionals. In some cases, additional material was collected, which helped to determine the source of the article. In many cases, PR professionals and journalists declined to be interviewed.

Within this broad category, articles that could be definitively tracked to media releases were coded. A further category was developed to indicate whether or not “significant extra work” was added by reporters to the public relations content.

After the initial coding, a check was carried out on all entries by a second coder.

The researchers acknowledge that there are some value judgements in determining the categories. In all cases, we endeavored to be fair to journalists.

How did we define PR driven?

 We defined journalism as PR driven if it was instigated from a press release or some other form of promotional material; or if a story clearly presented only one, highly positive slant or framed one source in a promotional manner without including any independent verification or additional source. The researchers acknowledge that some discretion had to be applied in determining whether some stories were from a PR source or not. When there was no media release, if it was clear from the positive, promotional tone of the article or there was a focus on one source only with no indication of independent questioning, it was coded as “PR driven”.

How did we define “significant extra work”?

Extra work by journalists included interviewing more than one source, following up a press release to seek further individual comment from a source, etc.  This qualification meant that although articles were still PR driven, journalists did undertake extra work of their own in seeking out further comment e.g. from a source independent of the key sources. For example, a medical study release followed up with an independent medical source.

One editor pointed out that journalists could be doing hidden work behind the scenes or the independent work could be cut for space reasons. Our response would be that it would be unusual for a reporter not to indicate their own work when dealing with a release and that the public do not receive the cut material.

What difference did it make that we analysed five weekdays and not a weekend?

Saturday and Sunday newspapers carry a considerable amount of solid journalism — e.g. News Review in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Inquirer in The Australian. However, the weekend papers come with a mass of travel, drive, lifestyle, arts and other supplements, all packed with promotional material. If we had included two weekend days, it is highly likely that the level of PR would have been even higher as a result of these sections and supplements

 

What difference did it make that we did not include all rounds?

We did not include property or good living rounds. If we had included these, the level of PR would have been even higher. We also have not included sport in the final survey.

Why did we exclude sport?

We initially did include the sports round.  The sports round, with more than 1000 articles, was the biggest round. We found, however, that it was the most difficult to code. This is partly because much of the coverage is organised around publicity opportunities and the media are heavily involved in the ownership and sponsorship of sport. During this period, the Daily Telegraph has a Scandal free back page every day. Nevertheless, the coverage of sports events is a competitive field in which reporters apply professional skill to covering events.

On the other hand, contact between sports celebrities and journalists are heavily controlled by Sports PR. For these reasons, it was decided that because of the nature of the media and PR industries relationship with sport, it was too difficult to reliably code the sports reports. There were, however, many examples of PR-driven sports journalism.

Who else has researched ‘Spinning the Media’?

Click here for a report by Maria Strumendo and Wendy Bacon into previous some Australian and international academic work into PR influence in the media.

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