Journalists are spinning it for themselves But it is not only the power of the public relations professional that is threatening to get in the way of free speech. The rise and rise of what has become known as the “opinion cycle”, which now dominates the news agenda and is often led by the journalists themselves, is drowning out the facts in favour of the juicy grab or headline. Writing in The Walkley Magazine last year, Lachlan Harris, the former communications director for Kevin Rudd as prime minister, concluded that opinion, not fact, was now driving the news cycle and that every year the number of journalists shrinks and the number of commentators goes up. “In the opinion cycle what is, or is not, an objectively determinable fact is no longer nearly as important as what accusations are being levelled at you,” he wrote. “In the new opinionbased cycle the volume of the accusation, is much more important than the objective weight of any fact. Governments aren’t held to account; they are restrained by accusation. The difference is subtle, but the consequences for the process of governing are huge. The capacity of any government, anywhere, to achieve major long-term reform in the opinion cycle remains uncertain.” In an era where any individual can effectively be a publisher, the real value of journalism will increasingly lie in uncovering facts rather than merely repackaging opinion. While it is undoubtedly cheaper to devote space in newspapers, broadcasts and online to opinion-based content (and stories prompted by press releases), it is the resource-heavy, “shoe-leather”-style reporting that produces the kind of public service journalism which upholds and supports democracy. News executives should remain mindful of this.
Journalists can pull out of the spin cycle It takes two to spin news: the PR and the journalist. But there is evidence that some media organisations are getting off the bus, writes Matthew Knott Journalists love to bag spin doctors. Bewailing the growth of the PR industry is one of our favourite pastimes – rivaled only by breaking news and gossiping about our fellow hacks. The incredible proliferation of spin, we tell ourselves, is a threat to journalism and to democracy. We’re right – but let’s not wallow in self-righteous despair. We in the media are key players in the spin cycle, not passive, powerless observers of it. At our best, we disrupt spin; at our worst we encourage it. As former finance minister Lindsay Tanner argues in his book Sideshow (Penguin, $32.95), politicians and other figures of public interest have always engaged in exaggeration, obfuscation and distraction. But something troubling, and significant, is happening in contemporary Australia (indeed, around the developed world). “Spin is intensifying,” he writes. “Whereas once it reflected occasional embellishments and evasions, it now lies at the heart of the political process. People are complaining about something that they once ignored or took for granted because it now dominates our public culture.” The media, Tanner argues, must cop some of the blame for this trend – and he’s right. Spin flourishes when we serve up shallow ‘he said, she said’ journalism. When we repackage press releases as news. When we fail to fact-check our sources’ claims. When we hound and harass people for no public benefit. “If there was no market demand for this work it wouldn’t exist,” veteran crisis management consultant Anthony McClellan told me recently. “We exist because the media is ferocious, often unfair and sometimes unethical. Our job is to stand between the client and the 50 journos at the gate – metaphorically speaking but sometimes not.” Hold on a minute, I hear my journalistic comrades protest. Newsrooms are understaffed and under-resourced. We’re being asked to do more with less in double the time. Meanwhile, the ranks of PR pros are swelling. This makes us more vulnerable to spin. It’s all true. But no matter how much we moan and groan, PR professionals are likely to outnumber journalists for the foreseeable future. Crisis management experts will continue to be called in by government and big business when bad news breaks. Wishing them away won’t do us any good. The key is to recognise, and embrace, our power to push back.
Published on May 3, 2012