Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Flat Earth News debate

Last night I went along to a debate about churnalism incited by Nick Davies's Flat Earth News which was hosted by Press Gazette at at the London School of Arts and Communications.

I haven't read the book and its author kicked off by saying he didn't really want to talk about it and the reactions it has caused, but he did seem to be offering a concise summary of its polemical drift: there are fewer, more time-poor journalists around these days and the pressures imposed on them by increasingly commercial owners and editors mean that they are failing to carry out their sacred mission: the distillation of 'truth' from the froth of 'messages'.

In other words, a familiar moan about disintermediation. The PR industry, which was well represented last night, is experiencing similar anxieties about loss of control, but generally has a greater sense of optimism about the opportunities that might arise.

Still, there were people from both sides defending their respective professions po-facedly in the manner of Muslims accused of espousing a violent and backward faith. And another notable feature of the debate was that the more managerial the speaker, the less likely they were to admit to concerns about the greed and laziness of their colleagues! (There was also a particularly tedious sub-debate about the role of the NUJ that really ought to have been farmed out to another room.)

Davies's misgivings about churnalistic tendencies in the media seem to be focused on the so-called quality press in this country. Yet the areas where I have personally found it most disconcerting have been on the pages of free publications like Metro and within programmes such as the BBC's Breakfast, where it is clear that information received from external sources is being pushed out in a largely unmediated fashion. ("A new study suggests...")

The brighter amongst us are surely aware that we 'consumers' of media are increasingly able and willing to assume the task of truth-distillation ourselves (when we are not actually adding to the message pool). Perhaps, as the PRCA representative suggested, the book's propositons do depend on a rather dim view of reader intelligence. But as my post yesterday (on an interview in Sentinel with the founder of Hasbean) mooted, sometimes journalists really can mislead their readers by neglecting to fully inform themselves around the narrative presented to them; in effect a failure to contextualise. I can see why many readers might not think it is their responsibility to undertake this research legwork, even though it has become much less onerous using the Web.

This may after all be an issue of public education. However, the more we move towards a media-model where the majority of published articles are read online and open to moderated public comment, the more I feel that the cracks in the truth left by sloppy churnalists will be filled in by media audiences.

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