Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Media Standards Trust


  The Media Standards Trust was established in 2006. It is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that aims to find ways to foster the highest standards of excellence in news journalism and ensure public trust in news is nurtured.

  We exist because we believe high standards of news and information are critical to the health of our democratic society. These standards are being challenged by the enormous, revolutionary changes in the way in which news and information are produced, funded, packaged, delivered and consumed. In many areas these changes are leading to; less accurate reporting, less substantial sourcing, an escalation in the use of "manufactured news", an increase in self-censorship, a growth of subjective over objective reporting, and a reduction in sustained, in-depth reporting on the ground, particularly investigative reporting.

  Of course there have always been high and low standards and always will be, but right now, as the news media is transformed, these standards are under threat as never before. We will work on behalf of the public and the public interest to find ways to preserve and foster high standards.


  In this submission we will briefly outline the evidence for the revolution in news media—in response to the questions you have asked.

  Although the submission does try to focus on these questions, we believe there are a host of new questions in our new media environment that are equally urgent. News providers are, for example, losing control of their own news agendas as people pick and choose which news stories they are interested in or consider relevant to them. Similarly, now that people have access to—effectively—infinite content on the internet, the traditional idea of "diversity" needs to be reconsidered.

  This paper will try to be as concise as possible, but if you would like any more information about the points raised, please do not hesitate to let us know.

1.  How and why have the agendas of news providers changed?

  1.01 Due to the combined forces of new technology, competitive pressure, and the controls now available to the consumer, news organisations are losing confidence in the idea of shared news values. In practice this means they either flock, like a single herd, to one story, or splinter to different agendas according to the perceived priorities of their audience.

  1.02 There is a serious danger that as a result, news organisations lack the resources to fund an ongoing, public interest news agenda, and that we, as a society, are losing our shared knowledge—threatening social cohesion and preventing us from being able to participate fully.


  1.03  Loss of editorial control. News is now often produced in such a way that each individual story is an individual package and can delivered and consumed in any order—ceding the power of the editor to define the news agenda, in other words, to the audience (see, for example, BBC & Sky digital news, the BBC news player, online news sites, RSS feeds etc.).

  1.04  "Pyramiding". There is an increasing tendency for one news story to monopolise the attention of all mainstream news outlets—whether it be the disappearance of Madeleine McCann or British sailors held hostage in Iran. The author Lionel Shriver described the phenomenon at this year's Edinburgh Festival as the rise of the "hyper-narrative".

  1.05  Splintering. Outside the "pyramid" stories described above there is less shared news agenda across outlets as each news provider tries to distinguish itself and find its own consumer niche (BBC excepted)—eg The Independent and the environment, Five News and citizen journalism

  1.06  Stress on individual "relevance". News agendas are increasingly keen to stress how each news story is directly relevant to YOU—for example, explaining exactly what impact an interest rate rise will have on your mortgage. This is both to cater to the demand for "me-media" and to counter the growing belief that "much of the news on TV is not relevant to me" (up from 34% in 2002 to 55% in 2007, OFCOM 2007).

  1.07  Aspiration to authenticity. News providers try to enhance the "realness" of footage as much as they can by, for example, including videos and/or testimony from the public (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five all now ask their viewers for content. ITV has recently launched its "Upload" service and Five has partnered with Friction TV).

  1.08  More emotive, more subjective. Journalists are being encouraged to include their personal impressions in news stories—sometimes even their personal feelings. A report by Carma International compared coverage of over 200 health and crime stories in six UK national newspapers in 2006 as compared to 1996. It found that stories were more personalised, had been made more emotional, and had been spruced up with superlatives. 2/3 of reports put individuals at the centre of the story, vs half 10 years ago. 14% of reports included a quote from a family member, vs 4% 10 years ago. Use of emotive words had increased, in some cases tenfold.

  1.09  PR driven. The professionalisation of public relations and reduced editorial resources of news organisations mean their agendas are increasingly influenced, and filled, with public relations material. In a recent survey of local newspaper journalists, 92% said they used more PR copy in their stories than previously (Williams & Franklin, Cardiff 2007).

  1.10  Increased speed of turnover. News agendas evolve much more rapidly than they did, partly due to ease of publishing, and to multiplication of news outlets. "When I fought the 1997 election" Tony Blair said in a speech in June 2007, "...we took an issue a day. In 2005 we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon, and by the evening the agenda had already moved on."


  1.11  Competition from new news providers. In addition to competing with one another, UK news organisations now have to compete with new sources of UK news on the web (especially specialist sources and blogs), international news providers (such as, and news aggregators (such as Google News). The day after the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones you could, for example, read 684 news articles about the killing on Google News.

  1.12  Competition from non-news media (nb entertainment). The greatest competition to news comes not from other news but from other media content—particularly entertainment. The media options available to the public are now overwhelming. Many homes now have access to seven digital platforms (OFCOM), through any or all of which they can consume media content. The average Briton spends more than seven hours a day watching television, listening to the radio, surfing the internet and talking on the phone. News therefore competes with all other media content for people's attention.

  1.13  Demands created by the increasing number of technological platforms. Having to provide news in print, in pictures, in audio and in video has forced news providers to alter—and in many cases narrow—their news agenda. The BBC, for example, now releases the same news story, packaged differently, on terrestrial TV, on digital TV, on radio, online, and on mobile phones. Mark Byford, deputy DG and head of BBC journalism, said recently that "Mobiles are the news medium of the masses. And that means text". Inevitably this also means fewer words.

  1.14  Demands created by ease of publishing. News organisations have had to take account of the ease by which anyone can now publish (eg via blogs, video logs, or picture sites). There are, for example, 1,845 new articles published on Wikipedia every day—equal to about 22 newspaper broadsheets' worth. News outlets have reacted by trying to integrate their audiences' output to their own (eg see and encouraging audiences to send them content.

  1.15  Multiplication of distribution channels. As well as providing news through their own channels, news organisations are now having to provide it via other channels and platforms such as Google News and social networking sites like Facebook. You can now view Reuters news videos, for example, via YouTube on Google News. News organisations have even less control of their agenda when distributed through these channels.

  1.16  Increasing information about the behaviour of the audience. News providers have much more information about the stories that their audience find interesting thanks to the internet. This has started to affect the priority given to different news stories. The online editions of the Guardian and the Times, for example, now have more American than British readers (from Nielsen/Netratings). This has encouraged them to "internationalise" their web content, and led both to launch international version of their websites.

  1.17  New opportunities for dialogue with the audience. Now that news organisations receive input from the audience within the news cycle, the attitude of the audience is having a real-time impact on the news agenda. When there was evidence of petrol tampering early in 2007, the BBC pushed the story to the top of its news agenda due to the number of people contacting them about it.

  1.18  New opportunities for the audience to define their own news agenda. People are now able—on digital television, on the internet and on mobile phones—to choose which news stories they are interested in viewing and in what order. They can do this on digital TV (see BBC and Sky news interactive), on the internet (see reddit, digg, newsvine, daylife and RSS feeds) or on their mobile.

  1.19  New opportunities for the audience to record the news themselves. Many people are now recording news themselves, from 7/7 to the Buncefield oil depot explosion to celebrity sightings—and sending them into news organisations, selling them via intermediaries (like Scoopt) uploading them to citizen journalism websites (like or loading them onto their own sites.

  1.20  The greatest change in media content over the next five years will be the massive accumulation of so-called "user-generated content". In 2006 the world generated 161 billion gigabytes of digital information. That is equivalent to three million times the information in all the books ever written. By 2010 we will be creating six times as much again. 70% of this, it is predicted, will be user generated.

2.  How is the way that people access the news changing?

  2.01  Reliance on "ambient news". There is an attitude, particularly prevalent amongst young people, that news is now so ambient and ubiquitous—on the internet, on television, on mobile phones, on the radio, and on electronic billboards—that if there is important news, they will hear about it without needing to make time for a particular news programme or newspaper (from OFCOM qualitative research).

  2.02  Personalisation of news to one's own agenda. Many people are tailoring the news they receive, particularly online and on their mobile phone. By subscribing to email alerts and "RSS Feeds" they define the type of news they receive and how they receive it. As long as two years ago there were 20 million "click-throughs" from RSS news readers to BBC news stories.

  2.03  Searching for specific stories. If people want to know about a particular news story they are as likely to go online and search for it via Google as wait for more information from a news programme.

  2.04  Sharing stories via social networks. Email, instant messaging and social networks enable people to share news stories with one another—a sort of broadcast "word of mouth" news. This is particularly true of sites like MySpace and Facebook.

  2.05  There is also evidence to show many young people are hardly accessing news at all—or only very small amounts. 16-24 year olds now watch an average of only 45 minutes news per week (OFCOM 2007) There is, OFCOM states, "strong evidence to suggest" that large numbers of young people feel that "news of any kind... is of little current relevance to them".

3.  How has the process of news gathering changed?

  3.01  Less on-the-ground news gathering staff. Almost all national and local news organisations have reduced their editorial staff over the last three years. From the Financial Times (50 journalists made redundant last year) through to the Telegraph (54 redundancies) to the BBC (15% staff reduction across the board), to local newspapers, there are now many fewer journalists gathering news than there were a few years ago.

  This is having a negative impact on public interest newsgathering. Recent research by the NUJ claimed the number of reporters sitting in local government meetings has significantly dropped in the last five years (NUJ, Journalism Matters). And in a survey of reporting on local councils, the Press Gazette could not find one council who said coverage had improved, most said it had worsened (Press Gazette, 29 June 2007).

  3.02  Reliance on agency reporting. A greater number of news distributors are relying on an ever smaller number of professional journalists—mostly from AP or Reuters, for specialist and international news. Chris Paterson's study for CICR found that 85% of international news copy on internet news aggregators can be traced to wire reports. And this figure only falls to 50% for major original news content providers.

  3.03  Increasingly desk-based news gathering. Two forces have combined to increase the amount of time journalists spend gathering news from their desk rather than in person. It has become easier to access information remotely via the internet. And, there is less money, fewer people and less time, constraining journalists' ability to travel or meet people.

  According to the Financial Times, the UK's local newspaper industry lost about £225 million in revenue last year as regional publishers invested heavily online but failed to counter declining circulation.

  3.04  Greater use of press releases. Fewer journalists producing more stories has also led to a greater reliance—both within newsrooms and by the public—on press releases and public relations material.

  For local government news, for example, official newsletters and websites are starting to take the place of news reporting (from Richard Orange, Press Gazette).

  3.05  Greater use of "citizen media" content. Television news broadcasters as well as national and local newspapers are now gathering more of their news from ordinary people. As the Independent wrote on 30 June, "Many images we see nowadays are not taken by professionals, but by members of the public". The same is becoming true of video and even written content.

  3.06  Automated "newsgathering". Google News, one of the top 10 most popular news websites, does not employ journalists. It "gathers" news automatically from 4,500 news sources worldwide.

4.  What is the impact of the concentration of media ownership on the balance and diversity of opinion seen in the news?

  4.01  This is an extremely difficult question to answer because the current environment is changing so fast, and because traditional notions of balance and diversity appear increasingly anachronistic. The problem is, increasingly, not with the diversity of viewpoints but how to find them, and how to establish if they're credible.

  4.02  There have been serious concerns about the affects of concentrated media ownership in the UK at least since the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1947. These concerns are currently being bypassed by even more urgent problems concerning the whole economic structure of news. Since competition—from alternative news providers, from "free" news sources, from other media content—has undermined the financial model of news organisations. It is no longer clear that they can be profitable (or profitable enough) through circulation and advertising revenue. Most news organisations are therefore thinking about how they maintain profitability. This normally means reducing costs and finding new sources of revenue.

  4.03  An equally, if not more urgent question now therefore is, what is the impact of competition on the provision of public interest news?

5.  How should the public interest be protected and defined in terms of news provision?

  5.01  The provisions made for public interest news in the 2003 Communications Act are no longer adequate. It assumes that the biggest threat to diversity, plurality and the public interest are from monopoly ownership. This is no longer the case.

  5.02  The greatest threat to public interest are the competitive and economic pressures which are leading existing news organisations to reduce or stop producing news in the public interest (eg political, legal, social).

  5.03  Further provision needs to be made if we are to safeguard public interest news in this country.

  5.04  The Media Standards Trust is conducting research into the problems facing news, and has started developing specific initiatives to deal with them. Given the rate and scale of media change, we believe this is critical moment at which to act. We would be more than happy to present further evidence on these issues and to tell the Select Committee what the Media Standards is doing to try and address them.

30 August 2007

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