Archive for May, 2013
Was ours “a free and open marketplace of information”? Not even close, says Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust.
This article was first published on the New Statesman website on 9th May 2013
And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? (John Milton,Areopagitica).
Milton’s words in Areopagitica still have a wonderful power and resonance. Who, in a vibrant democracy, could object to truth and falsehood grappling with one another in a marketplace of diverse information and opinions?
When it came to reporting and comment on the Leveson Inquiry in the press, was there a marketplace of diverse information and opinions? Was it a fair and open encounter? Our analysis, the first of the whole Inquiry, shows that – with notable exceptions – it was not.
We have just finished analysing news coverage of the Leveson Inquiry from 14 July 2011, the day after it was announced, until 28 November 2012, the day before the report was published. In this period the national press published over 2,000 articles about the Inquiry. Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay, research fellow at the Media Standards Trust, has reviewed and assessed every article with help from LSE Masters students (for those who want to see the raw data and methodology, they are available below).
Three things jump out from the analysis. First, that the decision by the Inquiry to live stream its hearings, and put as much information as it could on the web, was enormously important. It led to a considerable volume of reporting of the testimony – reporting that could be measured against footage of the testimony itself. From this we can see that while witnesses were giving oral evidence to the Inquiry, whether it reflected positively or negatively on the press, it was generally reported relatively fairly and neutrally.
This neutrality and balance plummeted as soon as the oral hearings finished. The level of neutrality – in reporting and comment – fell from 89 per cent while the Inquiry was live streamed to 37 per cent after the live streaming ended.
The second thing that jumps out is the general negative framing of the Inquiry, particularly as time wore on. Bear in mind that this analysis is of coverage before the Leveson report was published. Prior to publication the judge was very careful not to give any indication at to what he would recommend. Despite this, of the four to five hundred articles in this period that expressed a view, over three quarters were negative.
This negative framing steps up a gear in the 100 days before Leveson made his recommendations. In the period leading up to publication there were 28 leader columns about Leveson in the national press. 23 of these contained only negative statements. Three contained both positive and negative. Two contained neither. Not a single leader column contained only positive statements.
The criticism normally took one of three forms. The most common was that the Inquiry would recommend something inimical to press freedom. The next, that the Inquiry was in some way misconceived – poorly framed, poorly composed or poorly managed. The third, that the Inquiry was a waste of time given everything else in the world that needed our attention.
The first and most prevalent of these Leveson criticisms – about press freedom – might have been more understandable to the public if we had been told why the Inquiry was a threat. But the press did not report on the possible alternatives being proposed. There were, in total, six articles – 0.3 per cent of the total – describing or explaining other proposals for press regulation. This is despite the fact that a number of these proposals formed the basis for the judge’s eventual recommendations.
By contrast, there were 56 articles about the plans put forward by the industry. A plan that Lord Justice Leveson said did not come close “to delivering … regulation that is itself genuinely free and independent of the industry it regulates and political control”.
A member of the newspaper reading public, therefore, would have almost no basis on which to make their own judgment on what the effect of Leveson might be. If you relied on the press to understand what options were open to Leveson and what he might recommend, then you would think no viable plan had been put forward beyond that proposed by the press themselves.
You would therefore have to take it on trust when comment and opinion pieces said, as they did repeatedly, that if Leveson recommended anything but the press’ own plan, then it would be disastrous for press freedom and terrible for democracy.
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion”, JS Mill wrote in On Liberty, “is, that it is robbing the human race… If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
This analysis shows that the public were deprived of facts from which they could make up their own minds. As well as being deprived of the facts, they were deprived of diverse opinions. This was not Milton’s “free and open encounter”. This was not a diverse marketplace of ideas. And this was before the Inquiry reported. Coverage became even more unbalanced after the report was published on 29th November 2011. But that analysis will have to wait for Part 2 of the report.
This post was first published on PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on April 26th 2013
When we launched Churnalism.com in the U.K. in 2011 it was not, shall we say, well received by some of those in the PR world. “PR industry hits out at Churnalism.com site” read a headline in the U.K. trade paper PR Week. One organization – SWNS – even contacted us to object strongly to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com. We demurred. (You can read about it here.)
Ruffling a few feathers was, we thought, a sign we were probably doing something right. The Sunlight Foundation appeared to think the same and got in touch to find out more about the software we developed to power the churn engine.
Sunlight rightly realized the potential behind the software we had developed (or to be more precise, that Donovan Hide had developed). Super Fast Match, or SFM (as we named it), could not only be used to track churnalism, it could track matching strings of text in any document online — something that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales noted in The Guardian shortly after the site was launched. Sites like churnalism.com, Wales noted, “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”
And so the Sunlight Foundation and the Media Standards Trust began working together to enhance the software. Our first project was geared toward enhancing and open sourcing the code for SFM. Sunlight was, among other things, keen on tracking the influence of lobby groups on U.S. government legislation. Donovan developed a souped-up version ofSFM which has been used for ad-hoc Sunlight analyses, notably the spread of legislative provisions among sets of selected bills, as well as being made available for anyone to reuse (see link).
We were always hopeful that, after we had enhanced SFM, we could work with Sunlight to produce a new, improved version of Churnalism for the U.S. The U.K. version — chugging away at churnalism.com — is still an important and useful resource. But it has always been hampered in its success because it relies on people coming to the site and pasting in press releases. It could be so much more useful — and powerful — if it were integrated into people’s browsers. That way, you wouldn’t need to go to the site; you would just be alerted about possible churnalism when you’re reading a news article.
ENTER CHURNALISM U.S.
Fortunately, thanks to a second collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation, that is what we have together been able to do with Churnalism U.S.. The tool is now a browser plugin for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. It automatically accesses press releases from major public and private sources, and Wikipedia, such that the plugin can tell you when when you might be looking at churnalism, while you are reading the news.
We have learned a few things about churnalism over the last couple of years. The “Fourth Paragraph Rule” says that if a news article is based on a survey designed to get publicity, you’ll normally find the company’s name around paragraph four. If a headline includes the words “you need to…” then it is less likely there to inform you than to advertise to you. Watch out for superlative lists like “The sexiest jobs,” “The 10 most visited holiday spots,” “The top songs to send you to sleep.” Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are also red letter days as far as churn goes. Predictable news pegs like these are a boon to press release writers.
And when you see a news story about sex, alarm bells should go off. Let’s say, for example, you read an article based on new research that has found sex with a condom is as pleasurable as sex without (like this one). Does the article tell you who conducted the research? In this case, many didn’t (see here), which is a shame since it turns out it was supported by Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan Brand condoms and vibrators.
Our aim has always been greater transparency. As one blogger, sparked by churnalism.com, wrote to journalists in 2011, “If you have to churn, at least be honest about it.” Some news organizations do now link to press releases. Many still don’t. Which is why it’s very good news that we now have both Churnalism U.S. and Churnalism UK.With luck it will lead to a change in behavior. But even if it doesn’t, people will be able to see for themselves what is original journalism and what is churnalism.