Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The decline of journalism...

"...It's a fundamental existential problem for every society on earth today."
That was in the opening comments of Dr. Robert McChesney when he was interviewed by Ian Jessop of CFAX 1070 radio. The professor of communication at the University of Illinois ended his weekly show Media Matters last year, after a decade of broadcasting conversations with experts about economics, journalism and other important social issues. Many are available at the linked website.

Ian Jessop is doing fine work on the Victoria radio station. When we talked a few months ago, Ian said he aimed for guests from outside the common pool, people whose informed ideas represented diverse points of view. I'm proud to be one example, McChesney is another. He's an undisputed expert but he speaks more than a few truths that can make corporate journalists uncomfortable, particularly the ones who don't have time or intellectual curiosity to look beyond press releases and talking points.


"...The number of working journalists has fallen, in some cases sharply. There may be 10, 20 or 30 per cent of the number of working journalists there were a generation ago ...

"The balance of power has shifted to the public relations industry, which generally represents commercial clients who want to place stories. It also works for governments who want to place stories in the news...

"Over 80% of the stories that appear as news stories, original news stories, not just repeats, come from press releases or some sort of public relations work, or, they're just uncritically printing something that someone in power said, without any actual reporting or journalism going on; just simply stenography. This is a dramatic increase from a generation ago.

"It used to be that a much lower percentage of the news stories were just simply public relations spin masquerading as news. There was much more original digging and reporting going on. This is the great crisis that happens when you no longer have many reporters to cover communities. They simply publish the spin that public relations industry give them....

"...The ratio of public relations workers to working journalists in 1960 was roughly one to one. For every working journalist and editor, there was one person trying to secretly or surreptitiously plant a news story. In 1980, the ratio was two to one...

"Today the ratio is over four to one and it's climbing rapidly because there are so few reporting positions left. People end up going into public relations where there are lots of powerful commercial interests that very much want to influence what people know about them. If they can write the news stories that people see about themselves, that puts them in a pretty good position..."

"They've go so much work to do and it becomes second nature to run whatever comes along without thinking very critically... We're getting slipshod stuff passing itself off as news. ...public relations firms prepare TV news stories and hand them ready to run to local TV news broadcasts... Pure propaganda gets presented as a credible news story...

"...It's not that we are without great reporting.. There's not enough of it and is being done in media that is fairly obscure..."
Dr. McChesney is a co-founder of Free Press, an organization involved with protecting internet freedom, promoting diversity in media and encouraging public media systems to inspire, educate and inform. He talks mostly about the American experience but would probably find the state of journalism throughout Canada is on the same downward trend, for the same reasons.

We have a stronger public broadcast community but lack positive activism in the moneyed class of Canadians. They prefer to fund the Fraser Institute and other think tanks that promote narrow commercial and private interests.

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9 comments:

  1. This is a tale that McChesney has been telling for a long time and must cringe as he sees the crisis continue to deepen. Reading of PRP Grant's exchange with Baldrey is enlightening as a microcosmic example of the more general phenom of people getting to say whatever they want in their own interest and where there is money and power, to amplify that vitriol to a transnational screech. It leads to incidents such as that of Canada Post CEO explaining to Parliament that the CMBs are good for seniors and they'll like getting out for a little exercise. This would possibly have been the Foot In Mouth winner for the week were it not for Moore's callous denial of fraternal responsibility. I sent my local paper a letter yesterday explaining why I would not be renewing my subscription: a) too much advertising, b) price increases, and, c) editorial stance which consistently leads cheers for environmental degradation, expensive works projects of dubious benefit, anti-social justice measures; in short, the Washington Concensus.

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    1. Our local papers got notice to stop delivering newsprint to our doorstep. That will save about 100kg of recycling in the next year.

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  2. Thanks Norm, both for the post, and for pointing us in the direction of that fantastic MMatters archive.

    And, as an aside (but not really)...Just what is it exactly, that the good Mr. Fowlie is doing these days?.

    .

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    1. And another question is exactly how long has the good Mr. Fowlie been working on his current files?

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  3. While majoring in English I noticed far too often that articles in newspapers and magazines were poorly written, had many grammatical mistakes, started sentences with "and" (no you cannot). Often there would be a complete paragraph made up as ONE sentence. News is now made and imagined and the use of adjectives and adverbs is simply awful.
    As once said by a Sage, "If you don't read newspapers you are uninformed, if you do read newspapers you are misinformed"

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  4. Very timely and disturbing post. The only thing we can take solace in is the existence of the internet or else we would be even more dumbed down.

    I was aware of the degradation of jornalism, but the numbers, like four PR dudes to every so-called "reporter" is stunning an gives a real sense of scale. Outfits like PostMedia etc. always blame the changing technology for the difficulties they have today, but their abandonment of their responsibility to inform the public is at least as relevant and the reason they are losing out. Paywalls won't help either, unless they put something worth paying for behind them. I would be more likely to donate to Information Clearing House, Reader Supported News or other such sources of opinion and information than any of the Lamestream Media. The main use for the Sun or Province is for firestarter or puppy toilet training.

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  5. The only way a person would be dumbed down is simply because they take what is fed, and don't bother to see other points of view or check the facts. or even bother to read other points of view. A very narrow scope of acceptance It's also curious and very hypocritical that blog contributors constantly state they hate MSM, but cheer on the blogger when said blogger gets time
    on radio or a few column inches in the paper.

    Journalism is declining, I would agree, but opinion blogs are not 100% a suitable replacement 100% of the time simply because few are balanced and neutral in terms of positioning. Some do high quality research, other articles I've seen in alternate media source are jut plain junk and wouldn't pass a quality of facts test in high school level report writing.

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  6. Norm--

    How long?

    Well, at least as long ago as the willful wurlitzering of the current Premier's 'Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!' propagammon about a year or so ago.

    Interestingly Anon-Above, it was a media member, Mr. David Akin, who called out Mr. Fowlie, by name, for his uncritical stenography of the type that Mess'rs Farrell and McChesney are decrying in the post under consideration.

    As for the research....

    It's here.

    .

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    1. So sad; so true! The decline of quality, experienced, researched, well-written reporting ...presented in the form of interesting story-telling has been in the works for some time. A friend of mine still in the business tells me I've been wrong when I've complained stations are doing this to save money ...that they are actually spending more than they used to: which makes the net result even worse to contemplate. And the decline is happening in not only in BC, or Canada ...but throughout North America at least. And presenting propaganda ... promoting a particular point of view ... as "news" is also now much more widespread, throughout the world. Some of the worst in my view: Fox News, MSNBC, BBC World and Al Jazeera ... all of which report "stories" from overwhelmingly one perspective.

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