The ongoing (beautifully written) war of words between spin doctor Chris Vick and Mail & Guardian editor, Nic Dawes, culminated this week when the two – and many more PRs and editors and journalists – finally met face-to-face in a South African National Editors’ Forum-organised debate that asked if the media was in an ‘ethical spin’.
Brown envelope journalism, ‘churnalism‘, ethics, lack of integrity, corruption – all this has been fodder for various editors and journalists to feed on, and Vick – whose series of provocative ‘confessions of a spin doctor’ columns on Business Day online sparked the debate – has reiterated that he was merely trying to encourage the media to do a spot of navel gazing so as to counter accusations by government and the ANC that it needed to be regulated by means other than self regulation.
Editors, on the other hand, are convinced this is Vick – who has spent decades working within the ANC-led government, for parastatals and big business – is attempting to justify a Media Appeals Tribunal on behalf of his former bosses.
“Chris Vick has spent years delivering bullshit wrapped as bonbons on behalf of politicians, parastatals, and private companies. So it isn’t surprising that he has a well-developed sense for what people will swallow. Just about anything, it turns out,” wrote Dawes, in a column titled On Chris Vick and sympathy for the devil.
“In one recent column Vick recounted the ease with which he had manipulated some of the country’s leading journalists (whom he did not have the courage to name) into retailing his clients’ interests. So supine were they that he barely had to work at it. Vick reveals that he wrote articles that were carried under a ‘staff reporter’ byline, and in one case, even an editorial. I have no doubt this account is true, and it is deeply embarrassing to anyone who tries to make a decent fist out of reporting on our complicated country,” Dawes wrote.
But Vick continued prodding the various issues he sees as weakening the media, and arousing much ire in the process. When he wrote, in the Confessions of a Spin Doctor column – soon to be the title of a book he’s writing on the subject – “how journalists asked me to write their stories, begged me to edit their articles for them and put their bylines on my press releases,” the discourse got even more colourful. “I have been asked to edit journalists’ copy before publication. While advising on a JSE listing, two business journalists asked me to edit their stories before publication after I complained they were getting things wrong. Each night, they would e-mail their copy and I would rewrite and edit it.”
Talk to journalists and editors, and they’re outraged at the thought. Talk to PRs, and they’ve got stories to tell that they don’t like to go public with because, after all, journalists and editors and good relations with them are a PR’s stock in trade.
TheMediaOnline decided to talk to PRs and editors about the subject in part one of a two-part series. Is it widespread? What are the checks and balances that might help in preventing the practice of ‘churnalism’? How seriously are ethics taught in newsrooms? How do you teach young journalists not to be ‘spun’?
Willem Steenkamp, a communications specialist with marcusbrewster, is also a former journalist. He says he has seen press releases turned into stories by inserting a byline “to an extent, yes. But not to the degree that Vick evidently has. Requests to fabricate copy under spurious bylines are a rare occurrence indeed, but it’s not unheard of for PR agency copy to be used verbatim and without attribution by reporters. Not that we’re complaining – it means our client’s message is being carried across as we would like,” he says.
Editor of The New Age, Ryland Fisher, says he hopes his “would know not to fall victim to PR practitioners. I am very strict about this kind of thing and would take disciplinary action against reporters who knowingly allowed themselves to be used in this way. Sometimes, however, PR people do come up with good stories, but our reporters must still verify each story. What happens at a lot of newspapers is that journalists don’t have the time to do proper stories and it is easy to fall back on stuff produced for you by PR people”.
Mazwi Xaba, editor of Isolezwe, believes press release-based journalism robs the reader. “Right from inception Isolezwe has always discouraged this kind of journalism. When we launched 10 years ago we had to avoid being seen as a translated Daily News or Mercury (our sister titles). Even where we had common stories with our sister titles, journalists and news editors were encouraged to re-package or re-write in isiZulu rather than translate stories from news agencies and press releases,” he says.
“We encourage our writers and news editors to do their homework for our readers. Even in English newsrooms to copy and paste a press release is tantamount to robbing the reader.”
Executive editor of the Argus, Gasant Abarder, believes editors need to be hands-on, to be visible in the newsroom. “You’ll seldom find me in my office but rather on the floor taking an active interest in every story that goes into the paper. Stories are interrogated and researched and I am confident that all our reporters – from the most junior to the very senior have been made aware of the ethical pitfalls. Briefing reporters before stories is essential to prevent them being ‘spun’,” he says.
“Having said that, there is always a risk. There is a very simple checklist one can apply: Make sure the story is balanced; Triple check the facts; Eliminate single sourced, one-sided and biased reporting; Ensure you have both sides of the story; Endeavour to limit harm; Avoid unnamed sources and use only as a last resort and with the permission of the editor; and corroborate information from unnamed sources.”
Abarder says there has been “the odd one that slipped through in the past but we have addressed this with our reporters and we are very strict about applying bylines”.
Media trainer and news editor, Ray Joseph, refers to the book Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies, that takes a long hard look at the practice of churnalism. “Flat Earth News makes the point: you get a 500 page government document. You’re on deadline. So you read executive summary or the press release that comes with it. You don’t have time to unpack the story. And the good stuff is probably buried deep in the document. So journalists have to be award that agendas are being set. That information is coming from a particular direction. The PR is a source, not THE source.”
Joseph says good news editors will spot the different tone of the story when press release material is cut and pasted into an article. “You can hear it’s a different voice.” Joseph says when working as a news editor he would lift phrases from a story that looked suspicious and Google them. “Invariably, if it had been lifted from a release, you’ll find it online.”
Abarder agrees. “In fact, it is very easy to spot a press release in a story because it seldom conforms to the newspaper’s own style. The reporter would be warned not to do it again and there would naturally be consequences if the problem persists. But our news editors are quite switched on and are effective gatekeepers in the sense that they always make it their business to establish the sources of stories.”
Ruth Golembo, managing director of Lange 360 and herself a former journalist, says good content has always been the ‘stock in trade’ of newspapers and other news channels. “If the facts are not correct (or verified) obviously the content could be suspect. The weaknesses today are no different to in the past – relentless deadlines and juniorisation of newsrooms are definitely weaknesses. But reputable PR/reputation managers would never put a brand/corporation at risk by dishing out incorrect info because they know no one has the time to check it.”
Golembo says Lange 360 “doesn’t do spin”. “Access to information today is not necessarily easier for journalists (in my day we would meet ‘contacts’ in a pub and discuss who said what to whom and then try and verify facts. Generally we find media get the other side of the story and verify facts from independent sources too,” she says.
“I don’t think a press release has power beyond its role in highlighting news/trends/information. It should be used as a fact sheet and journalists/news editors should not treat it with disdain but as a good conduit to information. The only issue they might have is on ‘exclusivity’ and this should be discussed with the person issuing it, especially as the info is particularly interesting for a particular target audience,” Golembo says.
Steenkamp believes “The vast majority of South African journalists are, however, proudly honourable and not inclined to hold out their hands in expectation of baksheesh for a favourable story. This means stories generally stand or fall on their merits, rather than underhanded dealings.”
Next week, TheMediaOnline will look at the issue of ethics.
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