Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The intrepid journalist

I still have a mental picture of journalists as they are portrayed in old movies. I am sure you know what I mean. Our movie journalist finds a lead for a story so grabs his notebook and hat, runs down the leads and brings the story to light just in time for the paper to be 'put to bed'. In the real world, the majority of journalists start their careers full of idealism and the desire to produce sound, newsworthy and accurate stories. Sadly this is not really what happens and in most cases huge pressure is put on journalists to produce column-filling content at high speed.

The speed of production demanded from journalists almost inevitably leads to short-cuts and this, in turn, impacts on the quality of the information presented for public consumption. As readers, we need to work out what is the real news, what is 'filling fluff, spin, commercial press releases, or advertorials posing as news.

Now, let me ask you a question. How do you consume your news? Do you by buy a newspaper, watch the news on TV, read it on a webpage? Now for the most important question: Do you pay for your news content? If your answer is 'yes', you are in the group of news consumers that is becoming smaller and smaller.

This brings me nicely to the question of how the news purveyors make money to pay staff and keep going? The first issue is that news is a business and we must never forget this. Let's follow an example because then it can be easier to follow. Imagine a newspaper called “The NEWS”. The NEWS produces a print paper and has a flash website. The NEWS print paper comes out 6 days a week and the website is updated regularly. Now, how does the NEWS make money? First of all it needs to control its overhead costs. These are often the killers in business. So the fewer paid staff the better for business. The NEWS needs to sell as many newspapers as possible because the newspaper makes money from the advertising. The bigger the circulation of the paper the more they can charge for the advertising space. So when I wander down to the local dairy to buy a paper the price I pay is not really the cost of the paper, it is how much the dairy owner gets to give that paper space on the dairy shelves.
Now to the website. The NEWS has to pay a lot to upkeep a good, attractive, safe and fast website. When you log into their website you arrive at the front page. It has a nice classical look, with news headlines and then different areas of news with headlines, all attractively presented. Now it is up to you to click on the news items that interest you. Each time you click you go to the story and an advertisement. The more popular story or type of story, the more The NEWS can sell the advertising for.

Now think of all the content The NEWS is producing to fill its print paper and comprehensive website. It is truly massive and it is amazing how so much is written by so few people. The NEWS keeps staff to a minimum. For this reason cracks start to appear in the reporting as short-cuts are utilised. Journalists no longer have time to properly vet every story that crosses their desk. So businesses and companies take advantage of this and are producing press releases already written in the form of a story.  The journalist sees such a pre-written release and passes it on to be printed, often changing little or nothing. Yes, these may only be fillers or fluff around the main stories, but companies are sneaking advertisements in where we don’t expect it. This leads to casual readers accepting a surreptitious advertisement as genuine news.

To show you want I mean, there are a couple of simple things to look for to identify these spurious 'news' items. Firstly, within the first two paragraphs you will see the company or product name. Then there will be often be a list of reasons why the company or product provides such an advantage. This would be unlikely to be found in a genuine news story where a more balanced view should be presented. When you become aware of it, it is much easier to spot what is essentially an advertorial disguised as a news item. Look for the key clues below, and you will soon wise up to the tricks of the trade.

I have included a real example.

which purports to be a news story entitled Weight loss Maori-style makes gains.
Surely a story to interest many people in our weight-conscious society.
But is all as it seems?

The key points to look at:

1. A headline that makes you go 'wow'!

2. The second and third line gives the names of the founders followed by a simple positive statement  that sounds great.

3. In the fourth line the location of the business is given, followed by a list of irresistible benefits to be had at the gym.

This story is presented as a human interest story, when in fact it is advertising. Would you have been able to spot the giveaways in this story or would you have just gone 'Wow that is fantastic, maybe a gym would work for me'?

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