‘obtained from a news agency in good faith’

From the Press Complaints Commission’s ‘resolved’ case list today:

Jennifer Stevenson complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper’s coverage of a fatal horse riding accident was inaccurate. The complainant was among the first people at the scene and, contrary to what had been reported, there was no indication that the rider’s injuries were the result of becoming impaled on a fence post. The complainant was particularly concerned as her teenage daughter had also witnessed the aftermath of the incident and, in her view, the piece was both sensationalist and upsetting for her and members of the deceased’s family (who had given their consent for the complainant to pursue the matter on their behalf).

The Daily Mail response:

The newspaper accepted that there were inaccuracies in the copy which was obtained from a news agency in good faith.

As usual though, this is not the whole story, as the PCC make clear:

The complainant felt strongly that newspaper should have taken greater care when relying on agency copy and could have acted quicker to address the concerns raised.

The complainant probably did not realise until now that this is standard practice for newspapers, simply taking news agency copy at face value. As for the complaint that the Daily Mail could have acted quicker, this is a common complaint against a newspaper that does as much as possible to avoid taking any kind of responsibility for its actions. The resolution continues:

She asked that a correction appear at the start of the online article and rejected the newspaper’s explanation that its house style would not allow for this.

Again, the Mail Online is notorious for burying corrections in its US section and they always insist on putting corrections at the end of their articles. This is only an ‘house style’ issue inasmuch as it is standard practice to bury any truth at the bottom of a Mail article. In the end the persistence of the complainant led to the following actions:

it republished the corrected article with the complainant’s comments included in the readers’ comments section; it provided private letters of apology for the complainant and members of the deceased’s family; it removed the phrase “freak accident” from the headline and URL; and it appended a correction and apology to the online piece.

The original article appeared on the Mail Website on the 5th June 2011. It has taken nearly four months for the Daily Mail to acknowledge that it made distressing mistakes that sensationalised a tragic accident. It has obviously taken a lot of persistence and effort from the complainant to pursue the complaint to this ‘resolution’, a resolution that could have been arrived at as soon as the Daily Mail realised the agency copy was inaccurate – why not simply correct the article and add the apology immediately? However, they stalled, ignored or flat out refused to do the decent thing even though they were so clearly in the wrong.

To further compound matters the PCC have once again demonstrated – through the back-and-forth gentle requests sent to the Mail and forwarded back to the complainant – that their slogan – ‘Free, fast, fair’ – is as sick a joke as the industry it supposedly regulates.

To churn, or not to churn

Earlier in the week Ginsters – famous for pasties and pies – decided to get some cheap advertising by conducting a poll using Onepoll.com that they knew would appeal to the Churnalists out there. Naturally the poll is referred to in sombre tomes as a ‘study’ and it just happens to confirm the sort of misogynistic drivel that makes your average tabloid editor very happy:

Three quarters of all important household decisions are made by women, a study found yesterday.

I won’t bother you with any further details – it’s just a typical poll ‘finding’ that ‘confirms’ a few lazy stereotypes about women being the ones with the real power etc – but I’ll just focus on the fact that it worked. The Daily Mail managed a spectacular 83% cut, 98% pasted with 2499 characters overlapping; whilst the Daily Express worked really hard, cutting just 61% and pasting just 60%.

Another successful result for Onepoll.com (who I appear to be essentially but unintentionally plugging here – but do visit them as a one-stop-shop for all your churnalism needs) and another happy client, getting press coverage for a fraction of the cost. However, Onepoll are not always successful. If they take the round side of a gender issue, then the papers won’t go near their CTRL-V keys. Austin Reed followed up the Ginster poll with another ‘revealing’ gender poll:

It’s official – men are better at shopping than women, it emerged yesterday (Weds).

Research has revealed that even though they shop more frequently, women are more likely to come home empty-handed having failed to find what they were looking for…

And when it comes to updating their wardrobe men like to spend MORE on clothes than women.

Note how this poll is also referred to as ‘research’ and a ‘study’ which seems a bit of a glorification. Regardless, the result doesn’t suit the media narrative about women and shopping and it has yet to be churned by any newspaper. I guess there are some filters applied to churnalism after all.

Will churnalism.com change the way press releases are issued?

I’m sure if you follow me on Twitter you will have already heard lots about the new website churnalism.com and how fantastic it is. Basically, if you can get hold of a Press Release you can copy and paste into the churnalism.com engine and it will trawl news article from 2007 to see if it can identify which news articles have copied and pasted chunks of the press release into their copy. Having played with the website yesterday I can see that this is an incredibly powerful tool to highlight just how much ‘news’ is actually PR guff thoughtlessly injected straight into copy as if it were journalism. In one example yesterday I found a PR that had been copied virtually word-for-word by the Daily Telegraph, as well as another example from the Daily Mail.

What also became apparent from browsing the site was that one website is currently dominating proceedings when it comes to feeding lazy hacks PR drivel: onepoll.com. This company provides an online survey service which seems to work as follows:

  1. Company signs up for an account
  2. Company creates a questionnaire / poll
  3. People fill it in (they are paid a small amount to do so)
  4. Onepoll.com publishes a press release on their website regarding findings
  5. Lazy journalists copy and paste PR and pass it off as news

It’s good business, terrible journalism. However, thanks to onepoll offering open access to the press releases it is extremely easy to see just how many newspapers are happy to copy-and-paste (sometimes word-for-word like the Telegraph above) the results of polls commissioned by companies to get free publicity.

However, I do not see this lasting. I think churnalism.com will result in such material being pulled from the public domain and instead issued only to subscribers – i.e. newspapers – making it harder for the public to identify what is and isn’t PR – or how much has been taken word-for-word. Right now it is still fairly easy to find press releases and identify churnalism, in the future I can see it becoming much harder as companies contact their favourite newspapers directly – as I’m sure already happens – and refrain from publishing such releases on their websites. In may become necessary for newspapers – so reliant is their business model on copy-and-paste PR guff being passed off as news – to insist upon it.

For more examples of churnalism see Five Chinese Crackers.

The extent of Daily Star research

From the good folks at F365’s Mediawatch:

Maybe Mediawatch is being snobbish, but we don’t imagine those at the The Daily Star to be the spiciest chillies in the pot.

Therefore, their exciting news story, trailed on their back page, that David James was apparently ‘DRUNK when he agreed to join Bristol City’, was hardly a surprise.

We’ll gloss over the fact that he said nothing of the sort, simply that he was a little tipsy when he took the initial call, rather than rolling into the City offices with his pants on his head, bottle of Spar gin in hand and singing ‘Delilah’.

Instead, we prefer to note that the quotes on which they base their story are not really quotes at all, merely an extract lifted entirely from James’s column in The Observer two days ago.

The Star: turning mildly amusing asides into news since 1978.

Fact-checking and ‘good faith’

A while back  I posted a blog on the charming story of a pig that had a phobia of mud, and pointed out that it was in fact a story completely made up to sell sausages and promote a campaign for the fairer pricing of pork. I linked to the PR company which was using the example as evidence at how for a small fee it could get you in all the national papers and even onto Radio 5live and other BBC programs. Yet in the comments I was excused of being unfair to the journalist who ‘wrote’ the story and that:

If you had quoted the full Mail story, you would see that it was the owners of the pigs, farmers of twenty years, who are the ones saying she has a phobia of mud and that she likes to wear boots. The papers and media outlets reported in good faith what they said. Nor does PR woman Emma Cantrill say they are making this up – as Angry Mob claims – she is simply pointing out how they found a good angle that as well as being a fun story also helped advertise her client. Come on Angry Mob – once you were a source of light in the dark, but mow you are spinning stories as much as exposing the spin.

This comment was posted from an proxy IP address for one Associated Newspapers Ltd, owners of the Daily Mail. Brilliantly the commenter / journalist demonstrates just how stupid certain tabloid employees can be, given that his comment is full of complete lies.

Firstly: his accusation that the reporters reported the owner’s claims in good faith and that the claims were not made-up by the owners. The owners claimed – as I have clearly quoted in my blog post – that they ‘were at a loss, until they remembered the four miniature wellies used as pen and pencil holders in their office. They slipped them on the piglet’s feet – and into the mud she happily ploughed.’

Yet, as I clearly point out in a quotation from the PR agency in the original blog post: “Debbie and Andrew had suggested that we use one of their pedigree pigs for the campaign, as she had a distinct personality and was slightly more fastidious than her colleagues” – i.e. they picked a pig that was only slightly cleaner that the others – hardly sounds like a pig with a phobia of mud – and that: “Ross Parry Agency took this one step further and created the ‘pig in boots’ shot”.

So, the agency had the boots idea, not the owners, which makes the owners liars and the press lazy churnalists – this wasn’t a case that they happened to just have four miniature wellies in their office, but rather I suspect that the agency went out and bought some. I claimed they were making it up not because I was also ‘spinning’ ,  but rather because the PR agency is admitting to making it up. This is not the case of the PR agency ‘finding a good’ as the tabloid employee suggested, but it is a PR agency creating an angle specifically to draw in lazy journalists who can never resist a cute animal photo.

Secondly, the suggestion that ‘the papers and media outlets reported in good faith what they said’, well, forgive me for having expectations that ‘journalists’ are paid precisely because they don’t just ‘report stuff in good faith’. Even some basic checking would have revealed this story to be absolute pants, but then I’m 100% certain that 90% of tabloid journalists wouldn’t even care about truth in this instance, because at the end of the day this story makes good, quick and cheap copy and you get a cute picture of a pig in the paper.

As if to further prove my point that journalists really are a lazy bunch of gullible idiots who happily write articles without even the vaguest attempt at fact-checking The Media Blog reports this:

How journalism works: First, see this (ignoring the bit on the right about it being a parody):


Next, write this (ignoring the bit about it not being true):


Then, explain to your editor that you didn’t need a second source because you heard it straight from the CEO himself… sort of, before hearing the dim and distant sound of a penny dropping.

That is poor, I mean really, really poor. The Daily Mail have now done the usual deletion of the story, but a search for ‘Steve Jobs’ on their site still reveals the original article:

Steve JobsThere is something more sinister behind this idea that Daily Mail journalists simply ‘report in good faith’ because they don’t have the time or basic intelligence to fact-check and that is that Daily Mail journalists have plenty of time to dig around for alternate angles on a story when it suits them. Take for example the way they report health and safety stories, whereby they take an anecdote or measure and then spend a lot of effort kneeding it into an outrage story. Or the sheer amount of invented stories that only involve the reader taking the word of the journalist in ‘good faith’, given the complete lack of any sources whatsoever.

When it comes to spinning stories (or simply making the whole thing up) about immigrants, gypsies, homosexuals, the ‘PC brigade’, ‘elf n safety’, the public sector and any other Daily Mail target journalists have plenty of time to mould bullshit into an article. So don’t give me any bullshit about ‘reporting in good faith’, when clearly this is something you not only do not do, it is in fact the exact opposite of what you do.

Thanks to @deardamselfly for the hat-tip.

A Fishy Tale

Hot on the heels of the cute pig in wellies suicidally promoting sausages comes this story about a Piranha supposedly caught in Kent: ‘Mystery of the killer Piranha caught by angler in a FOLKESTONE pond‘. As unlikely as this sounds the original headline is one of the most laughable that I have seen in a really long time: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1287272/Piranha-caught-Kent-lake-raises-fears-fish-breeding-Britain.html. How can one fish – believed in this article to be released in isolation – into a small, landlocked pond, which would normally die within minutes or days (due to either acute stress or simply the cold water) possibly ‘raise fears’ of them ‘breeding in Britain’. Even for the Daily Mail that is a very stupid headline.

The terrifying ordeal, described by fisherman Derek Plum – presumably with outstretched arms and claims of ‘It was THIS big!’ reckoned that:

‘I felt an almighty tug on my rod. Next thing I knew it had dragged my line about 500 yards. It was going all over the place,’ Mr Plum told The Sun.

‘It took me about 15 minutes to reel it in.

‘When it emerged it was thrashing around and was going crazy.

‘The other fisherman were yelling “you’ve caught a Piranha”. I couldn’t believe it. Luckily the fishing hook had fallen from its mouth, otherwise I would have somehow had to remove it myself.’

I’ll simply point out that the Mail barely makes it a few more paragraphs before sticking in a scantily clad Kelly Brook still photo from the soon-to-be-released ‘Piranha 3D’ film. I’ll let some anglers respond to Plum’s tall tales:

Piranha 3D anyone?Piranha 3D anyone?Piranha 3D anyone?Piranha 3D anyone?Piranha 3D anyone?

Beware the ‘Fluffy’ Story

When you read a newspaper it is important to remember not just to be cynical about the scaremongering, or disgusted at the lies on immigration, but also to question the fluffy stories. Take, for example, the lovely story of Cinders the pig, which – according to the Daily Mail – is ‘The world’s only porker who is afraid of mud‘. It is a charming story complete with a picture of a sweet little piggy in four small green wellies:

You can’t get much happier than a pig in muck, or so we are told.

But when this little piggy arrived in the farmyard she showed a marked reluctance to get her trotters dirty.

While her six brothers and sisters messed around in the mire, she stayed on the edge shaking. It is thought she might have mysophobia – a fear of dirt.

Owners Debbie and Andrew Keeble were at a loss, until they remembered the four miniature wellies used as pen and pencil holders in their office. They slipped them on the piglet’s feet – and into the mud she happily ploughed.

Now she runs over to Mr Keeble so he can put them on for her in the morning.

What a heartwarming story of how a pig overcame their fear of mud – not just a fear but a suspected phobia as if pigs have all the same everyday problems that humans do, look, it’s even wearing boots, made for humans. The whole story is silly, this pig (like all others I suspect) does not have a phobia about mud and its owners do not put wellies on it. The whole story – including the quotes from the pigs owners – is a complete lie, it is completely made up.

How do I know this?

Well, I simply consulted the PR agency that created the story, because said agency is now proudly using this story as a testimonial to advertise its services:

Emma Cantrill from Intelligent Profile says: “We asked Ross Parry Agency to help raise the profile of Debbie and Andrew Keeble’s sausage manufacturing business and to highlight their ongoing lobbying work to pay a fairer price for British Pork. While we knew that that it would create interest within the local media, we wanted a national story to really kick the campaign off.

“We approached Ross Parry Agency, a photographic agency in Leeds with a successful track record of syndicating stories. Ross Parry Agency provided brainstorming ideas and a number of angles.

“Debbie and Andrew had suggested that we use one of their pedigree pigs for the campaign, as she had a distinct personality and was slightly more fastidious than her colleagues. Ross Parry Agency took this one step further and created the ‘pig in boots’ shot.

“The story took us all by surprise and achieved worldwide coverage including:

  • 25 UK radio stations (Including 5 Live and Radio 1)
  • National and global TV (Including GMTV, C5 The Wright Stuff, Reuters, CNN, BBC The One Show)
  • Every national newspaper and various magazines
  • All international news and entertainment web feeds (including BBC Online, ITN, Yahoo)
  • “For an investment of £250 we gained £250,000 worth of coverage.

    “Debbie and Andrew recorded a 30% sausage sales uplift in Asda after Pig in Boots story.

    “The advertising equivalent for Pig in Boots would have cost £451,630 in coverage.”

To be fair to the Daily Mail they were clearly not alone in running this story – all news outlets are guilty of printing PR-created story as ‘news’ or ‘light relief’. The truth is this manufactured story is neither news or light entertainment, but a cynical ploy to secure advertising at minimal cost. As the testimonial clearly demonstrates, the pig was selected for being slightly cleaner than the rest, the agency then decided to shove some wellies on it because they knew the press love a cute photo.

That any media outlet seriously printed this as real news – just look at that Daily Mail article, they really think they have uncovered a spectacularly unusual pig, and even suggest it might have a phobia of mud – is laughable. It also brings into sharp focus that journalists and editors just don’t care what is news, anymore than they care about misleading headlines or the dividing line between comment and news, or the accurate reporting of risk – the recent scaremongering of pregnant women over absolutely minimal or in some cases non-existent risk is hypocritically matched by another Littlejohn column today criticising health and safety for focusing on providing solutions to what he considers absolutely minimal or non-existent risks.

The only thing an editor does care about is circulation and advertising revenue, sadly the only newspaper an editor would consider laughable in this instance would be the one that didn’t publish the cute photo of the pig. It’s a sad reflection of the majority of the UK press.

And remember, this ‘fluffy’ little story about the cute little pig we’d all love to cuddle ended up with a 30% increase in the sales of sausages…

Pretend News

The slim line between the adverts you see in the newspaper and the ‘news’ that is printed next to them has virtually disappeared thanks to the increased demand being placed on fewer journalists to keep the newspaper full. Churnalism is now standard practice for the majority of newspaper content, and the majority of the ‘stories’ to be regurgitated are created by marketing executives looking for free advertising for their clients.

Take this news story for example: ‘Six out of 10 couples “unhappy in their relationship”‘, ‘written’ by the Daily Mail Reporter – which basically means it is a cut-and-paste job. The ‘story’ tries to pretend that this is news, that this figure is the result of important research – important phrases are used to imply that this was a study conducted by professionals: ‘say researchers’, ‘a study of 3,000 couples’but this quickly begins to fall apart with giveaway phrases: ‘more than half of those polled said…’.

You then get to know the company behind the poll and all is revealed:

‘The sad fact of the matter is that when people first start dating, they go to great lengths to appeal to each other by being sexy, romantic and giving,’ said David Brown of website UKDating.com.

Once the advert has been revealed the ‘story’ can then openly reveal that it was a survey (the word is used twice, but only towards the end of the article) and can drop the pretence that this was ‘research’ or a ‘study’. It is amusing how easy it is to get a free plug for your business just by conducting a survey on your website. It is slightly more concerning how news organisations try to legitimise these surveys by claiming that they are ‘studies’ or serious bits of ‘research’. By the end of the article the reader knows that this is a cheap plug for a dating website, but nonetheless the newspaper feels obliged to at least pretend – at the start of the piece – that this was actual news.

More churnalistic Beeb-bashing

Full disclosure – I work for the BBC, but not in an area responsible for commissioning or producing programming. I’m also obviously speaking for myself and my words do not represent the opinions of the BBC.

BBC in fresh ageism row as just one in five presenters is over 50” roars the Mail. And a lot of their Fleet Street colleagues follow suit. Once again the BBC is accused of cynically dismissing its presenters the moment they hit their 50th birthday. And this time – rather than having to base their stories on the moans of some disgruntled prima-donna – they have actual evidence! With numbers and everything…

Well, kinda. In an astonishingly unimaginative move, someone’s done a survey*. Specifically, Anchor – a company who operate residential care homes for the elderly. They’ve commissioned some research into the age of actors and presenters appearing on TV which, conveniently, confirms the previously held assumption that the BBC is prejudiced against wrinklies.

Anchor make the research (carried out by PCP, a market research company) available on their website. And credit to PCP, it’s actually not bad (although I’m perplexed as to why ITV appears to have almost double the number of performers of any other channel). They explain their methodology, provide lots of data and context, which makes it much easier to fact check.

Which is sadly, where the Mail’s headline begins to unravel.

It’s true that across the five terrestrial channels surveyed, people aged over 50 are under represented relative to their frequency in the population (22% vs. 34%). However, if you split this into 50-64 and 65+ age groups, it’s clear that the underrepresentation is primarily amongst those aged 65 and older (8% vs. 16%) rather than those aged between 50 and 64 (14% vs. 18%).

Aha! Proof of TV’s terrible ageism! Well, perhaps not. 65 is the retirement age in the UK (currently 60 for women, although it’s soon to increase to 65). So I’d imagine, if you looked around most workplaces – whether they’re a TV studio, a shop, a school, an office or a newsroom – you’d find quite a sharp drop off in the number of over 65s there too. At a certain point, no matter what your career, most people decide to retire. It’s true that TV isn’t like other jobs – and that there’s a need to reflect society on screen – but with 8% of performers aged 65+, that’s hardly ignoring them.

[Possibly tasteless side note – in addition to not wanting to work any more, I’m sure that a certain proportion of over 65s are not actually capable of working any more, suffering from conditions that might necessitate them to live in, I don’t know, some kind of residential care home?]

So – we’ve found proof of TV’s ageism in general. So what of the Mail’s headline implying that the BBC is the worst offender. Again, the data doesn’t actually support the Mail’s conclusion. It’s true that BBC One has a lower proportion of 50+ than ITV1 (PCP ignore ITV’s digital channels) – but more than either Channel 4 or Five. And BBC Two actually has the highest proportion of over 50s on screen, with 37% – which is higher than their incidence in the population (34%)!

So, the BBC is no worse than average – and in fact over represents older people on one of its channels. In fairness to the Mail, they do acknowledge this later in the article – not that they’d let that disrupt a good headline.

The only age group consistently underrepresented (and by significantly larger margins) are under 18s. Across all TV channels, only 5% of faces are under 18, while they make up 21% of the population. Where are the lobbyists for young actors, cruelly denied their time on screen, just because of their age?

Finally, PCP back up their analysis with a survey, asking the public for their opinion on older people on TV. Their conclusions include:

“BBC1 and BBC2 were more likely than other channels to be perceived by the general population as depicting a positive impression of older people.”

“David Attenborough was much the most popular choice as the media personality perceived to best portray a positive image of older people.”

I’ll let those quotes speak for themselves.

To conclude, we’ve found that ageism exists in TV, but impacts young people more than older people. That BBC Two actually over represents older people on screen. And that audiences generally believe that the BBC does a good job of representing them on screen.

Of course, most of the anti-BBC spin is present in the original press release from Anchor, then simply regurgitated by media outlets keen to promote another anti-BBC story. It’s almost as if they’d done it deliberately, knowing that it would make the story more likely to get picked up…

The BBC is far from perfect. And it’s wrong to ever fire anyone simply because of their age. But disingenuous PR like this, lapped up by a lazy press, have now led to a culture where programme makers feel incapable of replacing older high profile performers (no matter how expensive or in need of recasting they are) for fear that they’ll go straight to the press crying ‘Ageism!’. This prevents new performers from getting time on screen – and in fact pushes up costs for the BBC (as less high profile performers are cheaper to employ).

*Incidentally, I’d love to sit in on one of these PR companies’ pitch meetings – “So, you asked us to come up with a campaign to get your brand lots of media coverage. And what we’ve got will knock your socks off… Have you ever considered doing a survey? We just pick a topic tangentially related to what you do, ask a few questions and conveniently come up with a headline friendly conclusion that cheekily confirms or subverts conventional wisdom. If we publish on a slow news day, we could hit page 4 of Metro!”


Population Statistics:


What is worse than the tabloid press?

The fuckwits that repeat their lies. Yesterday’s short post on the ‘parents banned from playing with children’ story in the Daily Mail tried to point out that the story was absolute bollocks and the council had tried to make this as clear as possible in a clear statement. However, the factual accuracy of a story doesn’t matter as long as you have a collection of idiotic bloggers who will pick up the story and run without without the slightest hint of research being carried out: step forward Iain Dale to repeat the above story.

You can always rely on Iain Dale to spout utter bollocks – especially if it allows him a dig at a political party that isn’t his beloved Tory party. Today he posted the following blogpost: ‘How Very Illiberal of a LibDem Mayor‘ after conducting the thorough research of… reading the Metro. If you think the Daily Mail is a shoddy newspaper, imagine if the same group that prints the Daily Mail released a free newspaper, well that is exactly what the Metro is.

However, that trusted source is clearly good enough for Iain Dale to have a jab at the Liberal Democrats for such a ‘PC gone mad’ decision (he even writes like a Mail hack), even though if he had bothered to do even the slightest Google search he would know that the story is just another Daily Mail fabrication. Iain Dale isn’t supposed to be just another blogger, he is supposed to be one of the top political bloggers in the country, yet he is happy to practice churnalism to have a cheap dig at another political party.

And you wonder why political apathy is so prevelent in recent times.

Iain Dale has updated his post twice this afternoon and on both occasions he has ignored those commenters on his blog pointing out that the story is utter cack, he instead spends both updates making more digs at the Liberal Democrats.