Democracy put in a spin

June 12, 1998

DEMOCRACY may be under threat as journalists struggle to maintain the integrity of their craft, says a media expert.

Bob Franklin, reader in media and communication studies at Sheffield University, said declining resources and pressure from press officers and newspaper proprietors are undermining journalists' traditional role as a check against abuses of power at local and national level.

Dr Franklin, author of Newzac and News Media, has just published a pamphlet called Tough on Sound Bites, Tough on the Causes of Sound Bites. He has found that journalistic skills such as digging out "off-diary" stories that right wrongs and provide genuine insight are increasingly redundant to the production of many of today's newspapers, particularly the provincial press.

He said that too often the reality involves journalists who are "tied to their desks" rewriting press releases written by an omnipresent army of press and public relations officers. These journalists are sitting in poorly staffed news rooms and must write in a style dictated by the paper's owner for whom sales and advertising are all.

"It is rather a grim scenario," said Dr Franklin. "Journalists are often seen as a bulwark of probity, making the unaccountable accountable and all that, but under this two-pronged attack many are little more than glorified clerks inputting press releases.

"There are a lot of very good journalists out there who would love to get good stories. Unfortunately the pressure on journalists means they are caught in a pincer movement with proprietors and the industry on one side and the press officers and spin doctors on the other."

Dr Franklin said that the sheer weight of press releases from every conceivable type of organisation had combined with a move at governmental level to briefings by spin doctors to selected "on-message" journalists.

"The sources of stories have, therefore, become more channelled. On the other hand the pressure to increase sales had led to 'dumbing down'.

"We are moving towards the death of impartial news reporting. The news agenda is being led by press officers who are hired guns. Journalists are being bombarded with press releases, including political ones," Dr Franklin said.

"Journalism has become detached from the media. It is increasingly conducted outside the media. The fifth estate (of press officers and spin doctors) is overwhelming the fourth."

Dr Franklin's study of provincial newspapers during the 1997 general election revealed a further shift in press coverage because of increased competition. He found that local papers were less likely to over-report the election than was common in the past. Election stories now have to be interesting and entertaining to make the paper.

"Journalists have always had to strike a balance between informing and entertaining," he said. "But what we have seen is a move downmarket in that entertainment has taken over. It's a sort of infotainment."

General trends support the dumbing down theory. Dr Franklin said: "Almost every single newspaper that has overtaken a rival by increasing sales has done so by going downmarket. I do not know where the bottom line is. Perhaps it is the advertisers. If they begin to pull out because a paper has gone too far downmarket then this will force a change."

Editors can protect journalistic quality and give strong identity to newspapers, said Dr Franklin. But, he added: "Editors are changing like football managers. They have less time to stamp their authority on a paper. Papers are increasingly driven by their proprietors, who are less interested in journalistic merit."

Economic forces have had an enormous impact on journalism. Newspapers, particularly the provincial press, no longer have the resources to support large news rooms.

"Competition from television and radio and increases in the cost of newsprint are just two factors that have affected profitability. The same factors have affected the national press."

Consequently, editors and news editors must squeeze the most out of their depleted news rooms, in terms of the quantity of writing, by making sure journalists are sitting at their desks turning press releases into page-fillers.

Despite the gloomy outlook journalism may yet pull through, said Dr Franklin. "In their hearts many journalists are still crusaders, even though they are working as clerks," he said.

(See research papers .)

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