Now, during a second rise of public relations, we are in an era of massive contraction in traditional journalism. Bureaus have closed, thousands of reporters have been laid off, once-great newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News have died.
The Pew Center took a look at the impact of these changes last year in a study of the Baltimore news market. The report, “How News Happens,” found that while new online outlets had increased the demand for news, the number of original stories spread out among those outlets had declined. In one example, Pew found that area newspapers wrote one-third the number of stories about state budget cuts as they did the last time the state made similar cuts in 1991. In 2009, Pew said, The Baltimore Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories than it did in 1999.
Moreover, even original reporting often bore the fingerprints of government and private public relations. Mark Jurkowitz, associate director the Pew Center, said the Baltimore report concentrated on six major story lines: state budget cuts, shootings of police officers, the University of Maryland’s efforts to develop a vaccine, the auction of the Senator Theater, the installation of listening devices on public busses, and developments in juvenile justice. It found that 63 percent of the news about those subjects was generated by the government, 23 percent came from interest groups or public relations, and 14 percent started with reporters.
An example: when the University of Maryland announced on July 22, 2009 that it would test the new swine flu vaccine, the university press release read this way: “The research is a first step toward the US government’s stated goal of developing a safe and effective vaccine.”
The Daily Record newspaper in Maryland, Pew said, was first out with the story: “Research on the vaccine is the first step toward the US government’s aggressive goal of developing a vaccine for the virus.”
Tom Linthicum, executive editor of The Daily Record, said that first story reflected the reality of the Internet age. “It’s kind of like working for the wire services in the old days,” he said. “You write the short lede to get it up there first. You come back the next day and flesh it out.”
Linthicum said the vaccine story, while important, was not really in The Daily Record’s typical coverage area—the paper is more business-oriented. “We came back and fleshed it out some; frankly, we did not flesh it out a lot,” he said. “I think we did with it about what we could given our other priorities.”
This is not terrible. It is a decision that editors make every day. But, as Pew points out, it does hand a lot of control over the narrative to the institution that is peddling the story.
Of the nineteen stories Pew reviewed that covered the development of the vaccine, three contained significant new information, another three had new details, and the rest either repeated the same basic facts as the press release or were identical stories appearing on a different platform. “One of the key findings of the study was that as the press scales back, dissemination of other people’s work becomes a more important part of the news system,” Jurkowitz said. “There is also a greater emphasis on time, on speed, on getting the first bit of information up quickly. Often that first bit of information is coming from government agencies or public relations.”
Of course, in the modern world, news does not stay in one place for long. Stories may begin on a newspaper blog or a TV website, but they soon ripple across the Internet like a splash in a pond. Tom Rosenstiel, Pew’s director, said that ripple effect makes the original story that hits the web—and the source of information it is based on—even more important.
“The nature of digital technology is that it is distributive,” he said. “A story would be grabbed and distributed and when the original story is later updated, other versions out there might not be. It all depends on when someone grabs it.”
Some experts have argued that in the digital age, new forms of reporting will eventually fill the void left by traditional newsrooms. But few would argue that such a point has arrived, or is close to arriving. “There is the overwhelming sense that the void that is created by the collapse of traditional journalism is not being filled by new media, but by public relations,” said John Nichols, a Nation correspondent and McChesney’s co-author. Nichols said reporters usually make some calls and check facts. But the ability of government or private public relations to generate stories grows as reporters have less time to seek out stories on their own. That gives outside groups more power to set the agenda.
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