How not to get caught in the sticky web of PR spin
Sydney Morning Herald news director, Darren Goodsir, advised journalists on how to avoid spin and find the truth. Zoe Ferguson reports.
The landscape of journalism is changing, with larger workloads, longer hours and more pressure on journalists.
In this environment, re-wording media releases can be a temptingly, easy way for a journalist to generate their quota of stories by their deadline. It can also be extremely damaging for the publication and for the journalist.
At this year’s Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association (PANPA) conference, Mr. Goodsir led a master class called, ‘Independent Journalism in the Age of Spin’.
The master class aimed to teach old and new journalists alike how to produce real, unspun news.
He said sorting the fluff that public relations agencies want the public to know from the real facts could be a timely, but an imperative process.
He acknowledged the pervasiveness of press releases, and explained that it’s not just journalists who are fed them, but also politicians and industry, community, sport and business representatives.
Most worryingly, said Mr. Goodsir, legal firms are also receiving media releases.
Media releases have modified how journalists check facts and conduct interviews, and have almost changed the primary practices of journalism.
An example is the sources in press releases are sometimes so well versed that they recite scripted responses in live interviews. This makes the finding the truth much harder.
However, Mr Goodsir said press officers aren’t always unhelpful.
As with journalists, he said, some press officers are more open and honest than others and answer journalists’ questions to the best of their ability.
Mr Goodsir used his own experiences as a press officer as an example.
He said that the number of times his media releases were used verbatim on television was surprising, and seeing it used in a page three newspaper article was even more so.
However, as Mr Goodsir said, those days are over.
Modern readers are now so attuned to recognising spin that it’s harder for journalists to simply reproduce content that media releases provide.
Writing for a less naive society means that authenticity should be at the forefront of news writing every time.
Aware of the increasing pressure on journalists, Mr Goodsir said that it’s more important to be accurate than to be first.
For example, last year’s Qantas A380 explosion was being discussed all over Twitter, said Mr Goodsir, but he refused to run a breaking news piece until he had confirmed the facts.
“Sometimes it’s hard to resist the pressure of breaking the story first. But unless you’re accurate, there’s no reason in being first”, said Mr Goodsir.
Overall, the moral of the master class was not to take things at their face value and to listen to your instincts. He said if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.
“Go back to the basics. Check your facts. Be sceptical. Do your research and always have your bullshit detector on full alert. And remember, make haste slowly.”