How the news sells stuff

Ok so.

The way I see it there are three types of news.

The first is the most basic. Events driven news. When something occurs and it gets reported. It’s a simple dialectic process. Shit happens. Someone tells you about it. Bang – you have news! A bomb goes off. boom! Cue the headlines screaming about bombs going off. Someone famous says something. blah! Cue Huw repeating it in Welsh monotone. This is news… Well it’s not news if it’s Azerbaijan winning Eurovision but even banality like that fits neatly into this category. Eurovision happened. Azerbaijan won, that got reported. Simples!

The second category involves a bit more legwork. Let’s call it investigative journalism. A reporter uncovers something that they see as being in the public interest. They research it and use that to produce a magazine type piece, usually critical, to inform the public. Ideally this would be uncovering deep shizzle like corruption or cover-ups and the like. But more often than not these days this style of journalism exposes ‘fixes’ on reality television or the secret lives of celebrities. Still it’s all news in the murky world of media hype.

See now. This is news

The third, however, is the news as an exercise in marketing. Where people not involved with the news want the news to talk about them to help them reach their audience. So they court the news like lovesick stalkers throwing them gifts and writing stuff for them. Lazy journalists duly oblige, eating up press releases like fat kids in a thin sweet shop and everyone’s happy: News people have filler to bulk out their bellies in exchange for a free bit of advertising. If news was a drug, with a street value, events driven stuff would be your pure uncut base straight from the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Investigative journalism would be whatever synthetic complementary pharmaceuticals you add to refine it a bit. Press releases would be the milk powder, quinine, or sugar used to cut it with so you can raise the volume.

There’s nothing new here. I can’t hark back to a golden age of news cos I really can’t remember one. When I was a teenager doing work experience on a local rag 20 years ago, my first job was to open all the mail (before email caught on) and type up any newsworthy press releases. Things haven’t changed much since then – except you can just copy and paste it now.  If I sling out a press release from the other side of the fence it just gets faithfully published by journalists too lazy to even use a thesaurus. Now is it just me or is this a bit wrong?

After all – What PR does is market a product or a brand through non-advertising channels. So in effect, when the news reports on a press release, all they are doing is providing free marketing because they’re too lazy to fill in airtime or column inches with their own work.

Looks like news. Smells like news. Is it news?

This has become a thriving industry now. There is an open collusion between news providers and PR agencies. PR agencies even have a means of monetising their influence on the news. It’s called AVE or Advertising Value Equivalent – ie how much you’d have to pay for airtime or page space if you’d stuck your brand in an advert where the press had, instead, obligingly done it for free.

Now, I’m sure there are some very worthy reasons for an organisation to use PR as a means of communicating with the world. “Awareness raising” is a modern mantra for the plethora of charities, firms and governments to justify the existence of their PR machines. It’s surely in the public interest to tell people stuff about stuff that they might not hear about otherwise.

Maybe so. But it takes up a disproportionately high share of the news that gets reported, precisely because it’s so mutually beneficial to do. Try reading a paper or watching the news and working out exactly how much of it comes from journalistic endeavour and how much comes from a press office. Here’s a clue. Anything that says “according to a new report” or anything that cites a product, an advert or a company is likely to be based on something from a PR agency.

Today’s front pages would, you’d expect, be driven by “events”. Decapitation leads the red-tops while IMF allegations and Huhne cover ups account for much of the rest (ahem – the Star is running something about X-Factor… whatever). But look. The front page of the Express leads on hay fever – which must surely originate from “PollenUK”. Meanwhile the Independent leads on an article about life length blood tests, again something that can only have its origins in PR. Similarly the Metro has the results of a report on drug bans on its front pages.  This means that on a random day three national papers are leading on PR driven stories.

Now the media aren’t content with that. Not at all. The PR machine is well beyond name-dropping reports into our laps under the guise of news. Now they supply “experts” to talk about other stuff to taint even the purest events driven coverage with their own brand. So when you are watching the news covering something big like OBL or the Japanese Tsunami there are people they’ll bring into the studio to ask questions.

So what is this bloke selling?

These people aren’t there for the good of their health. They aren’t paid by the BBC. They may be a little fame hungry – but they’re mainly there for branding purposes. They’re there to put their brand – whether it’s public sector, private sector or whatever – on the telly. All these people you see commenting on the markets during the business news. They aren’t there because they’re stock market enthusiasts. They’re there to represent HSBC, Barclays or whatever. It’s like product placement extremis. In our news 24/7.

Now this worries me. I can see the validity of press releases. I think awareness raising is good and I can also see how companies and organisations do stuff that is in the public interest and should be given a bit of airtime. I find the whole thing far less offensive than the celebrity pressmosis I endure. I also work in the business of putting out reports and writing press releases and it’s actually something I quite enjoy. Don’t blame the player – blame the game!

The worrying factor is the insipid way that organisations and firms can influence the news without anyone batting an eyelid. “Advertorials” in the press already showcase a horrible mix between marketing and news – how long before the public can no longer distinguish between what is actually news and what is actually an exercise in marketing.

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One response to “How the news sells stuff

  1. Pingback: Role Models | newstantrum

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