When we read the news, we expect the papers to tell us what they see. This may have been the case decades ago, according to Guardian journalist Nick Davies, but is no longer true. In Flat Earth News, a startling and often harrowing investigation into the philosophy and ideas of the streamlined money-driven media, Davies shows how a vocation that once prided itself on uncovering the truth is no longer able to do so. Davies shows that reporters today "work in structures which positively prevent them discovering the truth."
Once, Davies says, people believed the world was flat because they didnít check the evidence. Today, he argues, the media is daily making the very same mistake because they canít check. He calls the results of this impotent approach "Flat Earth news."
Davies, using a range of insider knowledge, anecdotes and statistics, explains that journalism in its conventional sense is not possible in the mediaís current bottom-line obsessed form. He argues that "if the primary purpose of journalism is to tell the truth, then it follows that the primary function of journalists must be to check and to reject whatever is not true."
This would seem to be self-evident, but Daviesí definitions need clarification. By "truth," it appears he means factual accuracy rather than any interpretative veracity, yet sometimes the two seem to overlap. He quotes his late colleague Anna Politkovskaya to say that the journalistís "duty . . . is to write what this journalist sees in reality." However, it isnít clear whether Politkovskaya differentiates between cold fact and perspective, and as we will see, Davies doesnít either. For his argument, though, the distinction is largely irrelevant; in the nightmare world he paints, neither is possible. Under stringent financial restrictions and stifling cost cutting, there are fewer journalists with less time to produce more stories to cover more space. These factors together effectively rule out the staples of truth-telling reporting.
Davies asked one trainee reporter on a national U.K. tabloid to give a rundown of a randomly chosen week. In those five days he completed 48 stories, interviewed 26 people (only four of those face-to-face), and spent 93.5 percent of his time in the office. Assuming this is representative, there is simply no time to properly gather sources and verify facts. The pressure to fill ever-increasing media space is forcing journalists to use shortcuts on an outrageous scale. Davies says this phenomenon is "what some now call Ďchurnalism.í"
This problem is not confined to the United Kingdom. As Davies shows in frightening detail, churnalism cripples the entirety of the media process, from the wire giants of Associated Press (AP) and Reuters to respected nationals to local rags worldwide.
One consequence of this debilitating squeezing of resources has been the rising influence of PR. Journalists receive PR-related material constantly, an inherently biased source that should always be viewed skeptically. Sadly though, Davies shows that many reporters are simply copying press releases, replacing the company line with their own byline. A comprehensive study of four respected U.K. nationals (Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent) found that an astonishing 60 percent of their stories over a two-week period "consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material" and that there were "only 12 percent of stories where the researchers could say that all the material was generated by the reporters themselves."
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