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Wednesday, 7 October 2009

I asked Eric Beecher, owner of Australian news and opinion website Crikey, a curly question today. Eric was in Canberra at the Australian National University. There, the College of Asia and the Pacific is running a seminar on 'War 2.0: Political Violence & New Media'. I live in Queensland and I didn't leave home today.

Streamed webcasts are wonderful things.

My question went via Twitter. It asked: "#war2pt0 Q to Beecher: Why don't journalists disclose how much of the copy is from PRs, on each story? Way to reclaim credibilty?"

Imagine how surprised I was when I heard my name (my Twitter name is 'matthew_dasilva') read out over the microphones installed in that distant, crowded room! I began to sweat. Here I was, participating in a public debate, something that always makes me nervous even though I love to ask questions of people with brains and experience.

Beecher has both.

The question caused a bit of a stir in the room. Beecher thinks that the reason journalists don't declare how much of their copy is PR inspired is because it would be "incredibly embarrassing".

"I've often thought - and it would take quite a bit of work - [that] there would be an absolutely, fascinatingly instructive exercise for someone to go through the major media of a day - in Australia, for example, the daily newspapers and the main TV news and current affairs - and actually look for the PR fingerprints.

"And this includes government and politics as well as commercial [business]. And I have no doubt that if you did that you would find PR fingerprints over a substantial proportion - 50-plus percent, maybe 70 or 80 percent - in one way or another.

"And so I don't think it would enhance journalistic credibility to do it. I think it would absolutely shatter it."

This is bad enough. But it didn't stop there. A listener in the room at ANU got hold of the mic later and had another attempt to extract information from Beecher. This was Julie Posetti, a Crikey contributor and University of Canberra journalism academic. What did she think?

"The question that came from Twitter I think was an excellent one around declarations of influence of public relations operatives on journalistic content. I take a contrary view [to you; addressing Beecher]. I think journalists' credibility could be increased if that [inaudible] practice was adopted, insofar as through embarrassment it might inspire more enterprising journalism, which would bring journalists more in line with citizen journalists.

"To an extent, insofar as they're reporting on what they see and being forced to go out and cover as opposed to being trapped in their offices or tied to desks which I acknowledge has economic implications in a collapsing business [inaudible] environment."

So there!

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