Posts tagged ‘newspapers’

The Churner Prize

Picture of the Churner PrizeBack in February, I discussed a book called Flat Earth News.  If you still haven’t read this book, please do so.  You will find yourself nodding your head and agreeing with so much of it; the book is all the more powerful because it is written by a journalist about journalism.  The snowball started by Nick Davies has now grown, The Churner Prize is the latest result of the book.  On the FAQ page, there is a video of an interview/discussion with Davies.

So what is The Churner Prize (apart from being a pun on “The Turner Prize”)? Well, the Why? Page has a go at answering the question.  Basically, a huge chunk of news out there isn’t news, it’s simply press releases from companies or rehashes of older stories put out simply because the story is relevant to a new program or documentary.  Sadly, few people recognise these rehashes because we are all used to the news being packaged and delivered to us and we accept that it is both news and new without question.

In Flat Earth News, Davies highlights a news story which appears in UK papers every time the World Cup is nearing.  It tells us that an average member of the public is planning to take out an insurance policy to cover the emotional trauma he will feel if England loses.  (For anyone reading along, in the hard back copy this is on page 49).  The book says:

A few weeks before the start of the 2006 football World Cup, the Press Association in London put out a story about an England fan named Paul Hucker, from Ipswich, who was so worried about the risk of England failing in the tournament that he had paid £100, plus £5 tax, to insure himself against emotional trauma.

The PA story explained that, if England went down badly and he could provide medical evidence that he had suffered severe medical trauma, Mr Hucker would receive a payout of £1 million from a web-based insurance company, called britishinsurance.com. ‘I find when it comes to penalty shoot-outs it gets very difficult and I wanted to insure myself against psychological trauma,’ Mr Hucker was said to have said.

This is a relatively harmless story, it’s clearly a bit of an ad but the sad thing is that every time a story like this arises (usually via the wire service), journalists and editors run it, untouched, every single time.  For the price of a £100 (plus £5 tax) policy, the insurance company has an huge ad series run in every newspaper.  How much would a genuine ad campaign of that size cost?  A quick Google (or similar search engine) for “Paul Hucker Insurance” will show that this is something that he is known for.  Journalists, not readers, should do this sort of sanity checking.

So how can you help?  If you see stories that are clearly nonsense or rehashes or press releases, let them know at their contact mail address (churner prize AT gmail DOT com – in case of harvesters, I don’t want them spammed).  Start something similar in your own country – the problem is endemic throughout the world as the major companies take over more and more news outlets and cut back on staff.  The fewer journalists and fact checkers there are, the more chance there is of this continuing.  Read the Private Eye (or similar local investigative/satirical magazines) – basically, educate yourself and others.  It’s not enough to privately scoff at crap news, we should hold the publishers’ feet to the fire and force them to print real news impartially.

Flat Earth News

Thanks to the Private Eye for running excerpts from this excellent book in the magazine. To step away from my main story, you should try to read at least one copy of the mag, it is the only real satirical magazine in the UK and the only publication which investigates and attacks all the parties and all the people who shape our lives. It has long had a history of hard hitting investigative journalism and prints the stories the papers and TV don’t want to or dare not.

Flat Earth News is a book about the media and written by a journalist. Nick Davies explains, throughout, where the once proud tradition of journalism has now become “churnalism”. Where once a journalist may spend weeks tracking down and verifying a story, they now rewrite PR pieces, government pieces and whatever they can get from the newswires. He takes us through the means by which outright and blatant lies can be placed on the front page of every newspaper and why they are never challenged. And the book is somewhat frightening.

If you get your world news and views from the media, you are being very subtly (and not so subtly) manipulated to think the way “they” think you should think. This is the sort of thing that would be at home in a Cold War thriller or science fiction story, and yet is happening right now and has been for many years. Welcome to the future.

What can we do about it? Depressingly, and in my opinion only, not a great deal. The lack of journalistic integrity is a massive by product of the new rise of the media barons who cut staff and demand ever more product, governments who think less of doing the right thing than getting away with it and PR companies who will do whatever it takes to make us think in an approved manner.

We are all aware of the manipulation – how many thought the “limited” number of Wii console stories were put there just to make us panic and buy one? I know I did. But it doesn’t stop there, the rush to war on Iraq is covered, the supposed Al-Qaeda operatives are covered, methods of winning elections and many other stories. The links page on the Flat Earth News website has links to sites that cover this sort of thing in more depth.

If you care about public manipulation, media integrity and about how the world is viewed, you should read this book. In my view, this is one of the more important books of this decade to be published.

About the Author:

Nick Davies has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year for his investigations into crime, drugs, poverty and other social issues. Hundreds of journalists have attended his masterclass on the techniques of investigative reporting. He has been a journalist since 1979 and is currently a freelance, working regularly as special correspondent for The Guardian. He also makes TV documentaries; he was formerly an on-screen reporter for World In Action. His four books include White Lies (about a racist miscarriage of justice in Texas) and Dark Heart (about poverty in Britain). He was the first winner of the Martha Gellhorn award for investigative reporting for his work on failing schools and recently won the award for European Journalism for his work on drugs policy.