Posts on this site, I’m positive you’ve noticed, tend to follow a pretty regular pattern: take a story from the tabloids, trace it to a press release from a company who has a vested interest in placing the story into the press, demonstrating along the way the lack of editorial changes (or, as it tends to be called in the trade, ‘journalism’) to have taken place between the press release being issued and the article appearing in your newspaper. So far, so low-hanging.
It’s fair to say many of the pieces featured here aren’t exactly the most weighty of stories, and often don’t have the most immediate of impact. Sure, the incremental weight these stories add to a stereotype can be underestimated, and the momentum from this faux-zeitgeist can soon add up to become an unstoppable freighter train (especially when the central points of the article appear not just in the tabloids, but as content in subsequent magazine articles, radio phone-ins, TV chat shows, factoid twitterfeeds and further tabloid articles, for years to come), but in terms of immediate real-world impact, the contents of this site rarely have any really severe ramifications to them. This is, in part, by design – if I were documenting the next Watergate or the next Hillsborough, I’d be using a more grown-up platform than Tumblr.
That said, the reason I post so frequently on commercial PR is relatively simple: it’s ubiquitous, and instructive. By following an article all the way back to it’s source, it’s easy in the commercial PR world to show the company behind the story, the PR agency they hired to come up with an angle, the Market Research company commissioned by the PR agency to generate some (often-biased) data, and the journalists who failed to do any fact-checking before published the press release as if it were actual news, about actual things that happen in the genuine world. By taking a look at the workings at the lowest level, we can see the cogs all turning the correct way, even as we watch the entire news machine drive backwards.
That all said, it’s important to realise that the very same flaws, systems and inadequacies which exist in the pithy and frivolous world of commercial PR exist also in other, less obvious, more severe areas of the news. Take, for example, a very quick search from a fortnight of press releases put out by a single police force, the North Wales Police:
Don’t tie up the line – don’t misuse 999
Reporting a faulty phone line, a request for prescribed medication and reporting a lost dog are just some of the inappropriate 999 calls North Wales Police have received this year.
Traditionally Christmas and New Year are among the busiest times of year for the Force and officers are asking people to use the 999 system wisely to help ensure a genuine emergency is not missed over the festive period.
Other inappropriate calls made to the force during the year include reporting bins being left outside property, wanting a telephone number for a local authority due to a dog being lost and a call from a man stating their son was playing on his Xbox and refusing to go to bed.
This press release, as so often, was churned neatly into the Daily Mail:
999? My son won’t go to bed: Police reveal the ridiculous calls people make to emergency number
An angry dad dialled 999 to report his teenage son for refusing to go to bed.
The schoolboy, 14, was playing on his games console at midnight and ignored his parents’ pleas to switch it off and get some sleep.
The late-night row got so heated the boy’s father picked up the phone and dialled 999.
Police in North Wales say it was one of the hundreds of ‘inappropriate’ 999 calls they have received in 2012.
Running the press release through Churnalism.com shows a copy/paste rating of 27% – however, much of the remainder of the article was actually taken directly from a very similar story from the Cleveland police on the same topic.
In fact, taking the Mail’s article apart line by line, the elements they’ve included which are not directly mentioned in the press releases from the Cleveland and North Wales police services are the age of the boy who refused to go to bed, his intended bedtime, and a quote attributed to an un-named man who needed a dental surgery.
It may well be that these were details added as a result of some genuine journalism and fact-checking from Sam Webb at the Daily Mail (it’s equally possible that they’re complete embellishments, of course) – either way, those three facts represent the sum total of work done to add to the details given directly from the police.
As is often the case, the Daily Mail weren’t alone in running the press release – however, somewhat unusually, it was the BBC which picked up the story, running with 73% of the original press release untouched:
North Wales Police: 999 call over son’s bedtime refusal
A man saying his son is refusing to go to bed was among several “inappropriate” 999 calls received by North Wales Police this year.
Others included a request for prescribed medication, reports of a faulty phone line and a lost dog.
Police said the festive period was one of its busiest times of year and asked people to use the 999 system wisely.
You may be forgiven for thinking this is a rarity from the BBC, themselves featuring less often on this blog than the more PR-friendly Daily Mail, but you’d be mistaken. In fact, on December 31st, the BBC put out another press release from the North Wales Police, again with a high percentage of verbatim copy:
Anglesey pubs closed for selling alcohol to under 18s.
Six Anglesey public houses are to close for three days after selling alcohol to under-age drinkers.
The 72-hour ban is being imposed after a police operation.
North Wales Police say the licensees opted to close as an alternative to prosecution.
This is not a rare case, then – in fact, I could continue. The above stories all came from a single fortnight, from a single police force – however, as the hoax calls story shows, this is not isolated to the North Wales Police. It’s reasonably fair to say, the BBC routinely publishes barely-edited press releases issued by police forces around the contry.
Now for some context: just because a news service routinely publishes press releases as news, it does not necessarily follow that journalists aren’t doing their job correctly. It’s reasonably unlikely that the reports issue by the North Wales Police about the closure of a pub in Anglesey and the nuisance of inappropriate 999 calls are untrue, or contain flattering exaggerations designed to hide misdeeds by the police.
It may well be, then, that the journalist checked the facts, found that they aligned neatly with the press release, and used the words of the police as they best described reality (this is quite possible: in fact, projects I’ve worked on myself have been reported in the press with a pleasingly high rate of my own copy published untouched – that I made the effort to put my own press release through Churnalism.com says as much about myself as it does about the industry).
However, that the media – and the BBC in particular, as a news source considered amongst the best – routinely publish press releases issued by the police with seemingly-little independent fact checking is worrying, to say the least. Bear in mind, at the end of 2012, after decades of campaigning, it was finally comprehensively proven that the official police version of the events surrounding the Hillsborough disaster was fundamentally untrue.
During the year, too, the notion – accepted and released at the time by the police – that the News International phone hacking scandal was the work of ‘one rogue reporter’ in the form of Clive Goodman was spectacularly unravelled, with the (in my opinion) uncomfortably-close relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International exposed for all to see.
And let’s not forget that in 2006 in London’s Forest Gate, the Metropolitan Police shot terror suspect Mohammed Abdul Kahar in the shoulder, with initial press reports claiming the shot had been fired by Kahar’s brother, and that the pair had been discovered in the process of building a chemical bomb – claims that were proven to be incorrect, with the Metropolitan Police later issuing a full public apology.
At a time when budgets and appetites for real journalism are falling, and increasingly journalists are being turned into copy factories churning out a near-impossible frequency of articles per day, to allow PR companies to uncritically place biased material into the tabloids in order to promote their commercial clients is damaging, but to remove the ability and will from the most respected elements of our media to check the claims of those in power can be outright dangerous.