Updated 15 April 2013.

Image: Brisbane Walkley Media Talk panellists (L to R): Professor Stephen Stockwell (Griffith University), Steele Tallon (News Ltd), Cathie Schnitzerling (Ten Network), Charmaine Kane (ABC Gold Coast). Credit: Shirley Way.

Audio package by Shirley Way.

There may be more public relations workers than journalists now in Queensland but news editors from The Courier-Mail, ABC and Channel Ten say it’s a misconception that the numbers are making journalists vulnerable to spin.

Director of news at Network Ten Cathie Schnitzerling, head of news at ABC Gold Coast Charmaine Kane, and joint deputy editor of The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail Steele Tallon spoke at the Brisbane Walkley Media Talk at the State Library of Queensland on Wednesday.

Professor Steven Stockwell from Griffith University led discussion around the topic Editorial pressures and Spin City: how do journalists find the balance?

“The pressures of producing editorial material have never been harder,” said Professor Stockwell in his introduction.

He noted that employment in the PR industry has grown while employment in mainstream journalism has declined.

Channel Ten’s Cathie Schnitzerling said PR firms see this change in numbers as a perfect opportunity.

“[They think] that we’re ripe for the picking,” said Ms Schnitzerling.

She said that her newsroom is deluged with PR emails.

“They have very good connections and they cultivate their contacts very well,” said Ms Schnitzerling.

“A lot of them are former television journalists so they keep their contacts,” she said.

Charmaine Kane said that the ABC is similarly inundated with material from PR agents, but added that some very good stories have come courtesy of PR.

“It just comes down to the same basic skill that we all have to exercise which is: Is there a story? How legitimate is the story? This is a good tool to get to the real story but it isn’t the whole story,” said Ms Kane.

Professor Stockwell asked the panel if the recent cutbacks had created a situation where PR offerings might become a remedy for the current lack of mainstream media staff.

“We wouldn’t be doing our job if we were relying on … the feeding of the chooks*,” said Steele Tallon.

“Back when Fairfax had their first round of job cuts in the middle of last year, I think a brave PR soul penned something on a website talking about how this was fantastic for the PR industry,” he said.

“It was going to be ‘much easier’ for them to get their stories in the paper because ‘we’re going to be so hard pressed’.

“Even though we have lost numbers, I think we’ve still got a lot of very good journalists working very hard,” he said.

“Their (the PR officers’) job is to spin and ours is to decide if a story has merit.”

The ABC’s Ms Kane agreed that it is for journalists to decide whether a story is news.

“The decision as to what makes a news story rests firmly in the news room. It’s not within any political adviser’s… power to decide what is run and what is not run,” she said.

Ms Schnitzerling said there are levels of gatekeeping in all news rooms.

“To put it more bluntly, its developing your bulls#*t metre,” she said.

The next Walkley Media Talk in Brisbane will be held on April 24th and is titled: Outside the box; challenging the conventions of journalism practice.

Bookings can be made here.

*’Feeding the chooks’ is a reference to Sir Joh Bejelke Peterson, who used to say that he was ‘feeding the chooks’ when he gave the media information.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included some error in quotations.

Audio package and image by Shirley Way. Text article co-authored with CitizenJ Newsroom Coordinator Ursula Skjonnemand.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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