THE THREE FACTS SET OUT BELOW have been taken from an article published by Andrew Edgecliffe Johnson in the FT Weekend a fortnight ago :
- According to a research study of Cardiff University conducted in 2006, nearly 41 per cent of the U.K. press articles were driven by PR material
- For every journalist in the United States, there are now 3.6 PR persons
- According to the Holmes Report global PR revenues reached USD 12.5 Bn in 2013 (up by 11 pct from 2012 levels)
IF ONE EXTRAPOLATES THE DATA available for U.K. and U.S.A for other regions of the world, the stranglehold of the PR industry over the dissemination of news is pretty obvious leading one to wonder whether one should at all reach for the newspaper every day. One may well start a movement for conservation of newsprint and of course forests ! The psychologist Dan Ariely’s pithy comment that nothing negative would really happen to us if we stopped reading newspapers appears apposite here. However, habits die hard. For millions, the world over, the day begins with a beverage and a newspaper. In my home town in Kannur, workers who roll beedis* pool together part of their daily wages to pay for the daily wage of a colleague in order to enable him to read aloud to them the day’s newspaper, cover to cover. Depending of course on how sensitive the news is, the daily readings are sometimes interrupted by comments all round even as the beedis are rolled.
NEWS IS NOW A COMMODITY that is bought and sold and so has a price. If what sustains a newspaper is ad revenue rather than reader subscriptions then perhaps one should not be surprised if editorial, reportage, and opinions are in line with what a newspaper’s owner determines. The subscriber base of a newspaper has also eroded with the advent of digital media. If we cannot help reading the newspapers we need to be fully conscious of the fact that the news we read may not entirely be true and we need to be in touch with varying points of view and form our own opinions. For this to happen successfully, it may even become necessary to read papers who are, in a manner of speaking, at opposite ends of the spectrum. In England for instance, one may have to read The Times as well as The Guardian. If you live in India you may have to surely reach for The Hindu in case you are always used to reading The Times of India. Truth as they say, is somewhere in between!
IN ORDER TO BE AWARE OF THE FORCES OF CAPTIVITY in the media, one surely needs to read Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News (Vintage Books) which narrates, with many leading examples, how we have been entirely misled by the press that is under the dominant influence of PR agencies – be it the old story of Y2K, Enron, or the more recent fiction about the Weapons of Mass Destruction. The chapters The Private Life of Public Relations, The Propaganda Puzzle, and The Dark Arts of the book contain chilling facts that gives one an insight on how messy news gathering has become. Davies concludes his book with a memorable quote from Joseph Pulitzer (after whom the highest awards in journalism are named) which is displayed at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York:
“A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself.”
So, if you do have to read a newspaper swallow the news you read with a large grain of salt or be in a state of bliss like Dan Ariely by avoiding newspapers altogether !
* Thin Indian cigarette filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in a tendu leaf, tied with a string at one end