Attitudes toward journalists have changed in recent years, particularly with the Leveson inquiry and surrounding controversies. Even so, many specialist science journalists still have loyal followers and enjoy a degree of trust from all but the vocal minority of climate change deniers or anti-GM lobbyists.
Some people view journalists as tireless seekers of ‘the truth’, others as cut-‘n’-paste ‘churnalists’. Idealistic readers may expect articles to have been doggedly researched, while hardened cynics might think the most creative thing journalists do is use the Microsoft Word synonym function on press releases. Within journalism, some think of themselves as truth-hunters while others see it as just a job. Either way, casual readers have no way of telling what a journalist’s motivations are or quite how much time they are able to spend researching each story.
As a result of this opaqueness, it is difficult to know what agenda a journalist is working to. Often this might be something as simple as ‘I want to present this story in a way that appeals to my audience’, but this is certainly not always the case. Some may mislead readers for an eye-catching story; others could inadvertently push the agenda of an institution by failing to look beyond the press release. This could be out of laziness or simply the need to meet a tight deadline.
Beyond these day-to-day factors, there are also wider financial interests to consider. Journalists’ interests are very rarely disclosed in articles, as Guardian writer George Monbiot noted last August: “Accountability has no place in the culture of journalism.” Calling for journalists to publish registers of interest just as MPs do, Monbiot practises what he preaches, maintaining a comprehensive register on his personal website. Monbiot even includes smaller things like books sent by publishers for complete transparency. Yet very few follow his example, and the fortnightly magazine Private Eye is frequently filled with examples of undeclared interests held by journalists and reviewers.
Personal relationships are rarely disclosed either. Someone featured in an article could be best friends with the author, they may have even have lived together; readers will be none the wiser. Many expect journalists to apply a certain level of scrutiny and scepticism to all claims, which simply may not be there. There are other confounding factors too, particularly with event or feature reporting; it is seldom mentioned whether hosts covered journalists’ travel expenses or provided refreshments. Readers are not usually informed if a journalist had a nice chat with key stakeholders over some complimentary booze, for example.
You know where you are with a press office. If you see a news story on an institutional website, you do not expect the same level of scrutiny as might be offered by an ostensibly independent journalist. Many of the influences mentioned regarding journalists may well apply to PR people too, but they will always be secondary to one over-arching goal: to promote the institution(s) paying their salary. This is a clear financial interest, and is inherently declared in anything coming from a public affairs department.
I am not arguing that journalists are all a bunch of liars, or that everyone should just read news direct from institutional sources. Rather, I call for more journalists to follow Monbiot’s example and declare their own interests rather than pretending to be paragons of impartiality. I would also discourage readers from expecting syndicated journalists to pursue the public interest without personal, political or financial agendas.
For the sake of transparency, I ought to declare my own interests here: I am no longer a journalist myself, and am currently employed by a university press office. Does that make this blog post biased? Yes.