The new mantra of ‘not wrong for long’, churnalism and the role of AAP

Major media outlets predominantly use wire services such as AAP for their online breaking news. But this approach reduces media diversity and can perpetuate errors. Flickr/Dulnan

In the swathe of important debate that’s occurred in the last week about the massive changes underway in the Australian media, there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s been ignored.

Indeed, it’s a piece that receives little analysis in media and journalism studies generally and yet, this organisation is one of the largest players in our media environment.

The news agency Australian Associated Press has always played a significant role in the generation of news content for the Australian media, but since the development of online news sites this role has become nothing short of pervasive.

Associate Professor Jane Johnston from Bond University and I have been examining the role of AAP in the Australian news media landscape for the past two years and in light of the discussion about Fairfax’s moves to digital, the reduction of newsrooms and journalists across major organisations and the increasing role for public broadcasters, this research seems particularly important.

One of the key issues is that current online news websites contain an enormous amount of untouched AAP copy. In particular, the “Breaking News” sections are usually comprised of 80-100% AAP copy.

This means that, regardless of whether you’re reading The Age website, news.com.au, or a particular News Ltd title (such as The Australian), you will be reading precisely the same copy in the Breaking News section, sometimes with an AAP byline but often running a journalist’s name (usually an AAP journo).

Problem is, the average reader isn’t aware of this convention – “Breaking News” implies this is news that the organisation is “breaking”, that there is a journalist on the job reporting this for The Age, The Australian and so on.

Indeed, the Breaking News section should more accurately be called “News from the Wires”, to reflect its true nature.

(Since conducting this research we note the Fairfax publications have changed their Breaking News section to be titled “News Wire: Breaking News” while the News Ltd publications continue to call the wire feed “Breaking News”).

A former online journalist from a major Fairfax metropolitan daily newspaper confirmed to us: “the Breaking News section is primarily wire copy because it’s coming through all the time, you just turn it around and put it up. You know the term ‘churnalism’? Well that’s what ‘churnalism’ is, getting the AAP story and just turning it around.”

And if news organisations are going to move more towards online, expanding their online presence (and indeed charging for it), we can assume we’ll see an even more significant use of wire copy.

The beauty of subscribing to the wire for a news organisation is this – they are already paying for full use of the copy through their subscription; it’s generally sound, factual news-style journalism; and it saves the cost of paying their own in-house journalist to follow up, conduct further interviews and then wait for their copy to come through.

The added bonus here is that AAP is majority owned (90%) equally by News Ltd and Fairfax, with minority interests from West Australian Newspapers and Rural Press.

This is even more reason for Fairfax and News Ltd to use AAP copy in their sites – it grows one of their own businesses to do so, and saves their individual mastheads money in the process.

In short, it makes significant business sense to use as much wire copy as possible, particularly AAP copy.

The second significant issue in this is that AAP holds a particular place in the Australian journalists’ psyche, and this becomes important when we examine the way it has permeated online news media content.

Copy from AAP is trusted like no other – it is assumed that the work has been through a rigorous journalistic and then editorial process which ensures its accuracy.

In most cases, this is probably true. However, our research has also revealed a number of key instances when errors from AAP were multiplied and repeated time and time again as more organisations published, and republished their errors.

A public relations consultant recently described AAP to me as “like a cluster bomb” – when she wants a story covered as widely as possible by as many news outlets as possible, she goes immediately to AAP.

The problem with the cluster bomb approach is, of course, that any errors are multiplied time and time again. And public relations-generated material is multiplied as well – there’s no evidence that AAP copy is any less likely to be based on public relations material than any other information coming through a newsroom.

But the different cultural approach to AAP copy – that it is genuine, objective, professionally gathered and edited news – means that journalists trust it far more than they would trust a press release or news copy from a lobby group.

So the scrutiny journalists apply to media relations material whether from corporate PR, political lobbyists or community groups is not applied to wire copy.

Again, our former metro online journalist explained both the authority of AAP and the nature of online news: “The basics of AAP is their brand, their credibility is in their brand and so you don’t necessarily question their copy. They have the resources to be out there getting the story, [our newspaper] doesn’t have those resources so, you don’t question them on it. But if they come up wrong … I mean the new catch cry in journalism is, ‘you’re not wrong for long’. So, if you’re wrong, you change it.”

Comments such as this were confirmed by the University of Melbourne’s study of the Black Saturday bushfires coverage – journalists reported to researchers that the need to be first outweighed the need to be right while the tragedy was unfolding.

Commentary in recent days confirms that our publicly-funded media (and community and alternative media) will have to take on an enhanced place as the provider of trusted, independent news content given the changes afoot in News Ltd and Fairfax.

This holds even more water given the evidence surrounding AAP’s increasing role in filling a seemingly unlimited online news hole for commercial news providers.

The expanded use of AAP-provided copy simply means the same copy appearing on different news websites – audiences will soon be alert to the fact that, at least in the news sections, there is almost no difference from one masthead to the next.

We can only assume – and hope – this will mean larger audiences for news content produced outside the News Ltd and Fairfax stables.

Editor’s disclosure: AAP is a media partner of The Conversation. This is a non-financial arrangement.