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'Frankenstein news': how new media recycles the mainstream press

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What are we to make of the hashtag #BoycottTheGuardian which was recently trending on Twitter? Whether we agree with the sentiment or not, the intention behind it is pretty clear. The hashtag is – like its predecessor, #StopFundingHate, which was aimed at getting people to stop buying or advertising in the Daily Mail – an attempt by social media activists to curtail the power of newspapers through a campaign of an organised shaming. It is the new media taking on the old.

The latest offensive began in early September with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn becoming increasingly miffed with the Guardian’s failure to fully embrace the Labour leader. For a few days the organised “twitterstorm” failed to break until, suddenly, the campaign burst into life with the endorsement of Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor-in-chief of the Canary, the hard-left, pro-Corbyn blog. Rather inconveniently, Mendoza had also been invited to speak at the Guardian’s building that very same week.

Since its launch in 2015, the Canary has positioned itself as an independent outlet, free of proprietorial influence and in opposition to many of the values of the mainstream media (or “MSM” as it likes to call it). The Canary is, moreover, guided by an aspiration to “disrupt the status quo of journalism” and – while the ongoing boycott of a 197-year-old liberal institution might be evidence of this intention – a deeper analysis of the Canary reveals something more awkward.

In June 2018 we conducted an in-depth quantitative analysis of the Canary and its journalistic sources. The study – tracking every article published over a ten-day period – revealed that in ostracising the Guardian, the Canary is, in effect, amputating a vital organ. Our study found that more than half of the Canary’s stories (55.2%) contained material that had actually originated in the Guardian. This can range from a link back to an earlier Guardian article, to provide background or context: to more substantial references that reuses statistics, facts and full quotes from previous Guardian articles.

This article about Grenfell Tower is a classic example. It makes 12 references to Guardian material, reusing background information about the disaster, facts about the inquiry and the political context of the situation from the Guardian, as well as material from the BBC, Evening Standard and the Independent. The article also uses two quotes, filleted from different articles by Guardian journalist Harriet Sherwood. And although the site links back to the Guardian in each instance – crucially – the actual words “the Guardian” do not appear anywhere in or near the quotes – or indeed in the entirety of the piece. The casual reader, scanning the Canary on their phone, would be none the wiser to the origin of the material.

More than half the stories in the Canary contain material sourced from the Guardian. Sean Dodson, Leeds Beckett, Author provided

Regular readers of the Canary might be surprised that the blog supported the boycott. It is meant to be – broadly speaking– on the same side as the Guardian. The titles share a great many values – especially around issues of identity and social justice – and more than half of the Guardian’s “core readership” (51%) nominated Corbyn as their preferred Labour leader, according to research conducted in 2015 by the Guardian’s consumer insight team.

But the issue goes deeper. Despite the Canary’s well-publicised mistrust of the “MSM”, our study reveals that the blog routinely recycles its content from across the media. The study revealed that of the 1,471 sources of information that we identified, just 18 (1.2%) were primary sources (that is, material gathered exclusively by journalists working for the Canary). When statements from unnamed sources (typically spokespeople in written statements and press releases) were further stripped out – just 0.6% of the Canary’s material came from actual interviews.

Canary’s information is overwhelmingly sourced from the mainstream media. Sean Dodson, Leeds Beckett University, Author provided

It isn’t just the Canary that is addicted to recycled news. A follow up study – to be published later this year – of its “alt-right” opposite, Breitbart London, demonstrates that the two sites are remarkably parallel, as are countless other blogs that similarly echo the mainstream media. Like the Canary, Breitbart uses few primary sources, relying instead on recycling “MSM” material and secondhand embedded tweets, while all the time moaning about the power of “big media”.

Media sources recycled by the Canary. Sean Dodson, Leeds Beckett University, Author provided

Frankenstein news

Although the decline of independent reporting is most established in the “alt-media”, the MSM has long had problems of its own. In a longitudinal study spanning 20 years Cardiff University reported in 2008 that pressure for mainstream journalists to produce ever more copy has also increased their reliance on recycled material. Indeed, news “aggregation” – the practice of taking information from other published sources and displayed in a “single abbreviated space” such as a live blog or a listicle – has become a habit that all media outlets practice widely.

The Mail Online, the third most popular news source on the internet in the UK, according to the Alexa Traffic Rank, is a routine recycler. The paper’s “sidebar of shame” (the column on the right-hand side of the website that reports celebrity news and photos) borrows liberally from celebrity magazines, primetime chat and other newspapers. The Guardian’s Politics Live blog also sources a great deal of content from elsewhere – especially Twitter. But there is a difference – Politics Live also includes source material from many of the Guardian’s reports: firsthand attributable quotes gathered and tested by trained reporters.

Some have begun to call this the phenomena of habitual recycling “Frankenstein news”. The ethnographist Andrew Duffy, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has observed at firsthand how journalists are more reliant on secondhand news. Techniques of “curation” and “aggregation” are in the ascendancy at the expense of independent reporting. But while journalists have always borrowed and copied – it’s not called the “press pack” for nothing – our research indicates that the newer “alt-media” titles are abandoning independent reporting in favour of critiquing material that has been gathered by others. All perfectly legal, of course, under the long established concept of “fair dealing.”

Political-media complex

Kerry-Ann Mendoza declined the opportunity to comment for this article – but, to be fair, the Canary’s content is at times very good. The blog has given voice to many unrepresented elements of society. It has championed the cause of the disabled with some skill, harried the Department of Work and Pensions over its problematic policy of universal credit and has been successful in investigating the claims of electoral fraud by the Conservative Party

But our research indicates that, like much of internet journalism, the Canary and Breitbart are not quite so independent from the political-media complex as they like to boast. Their failure to gather much of their own source material, in the form of on-the-record interviews, makes them dependent on others to do so. By avoiding the interview, as our analysis indicates, they are denying themselves a chief tool of journalism and are dependent on the very MSM they profess to hate .

The Canary might have been cutting its beak off to spite its face in continuing to boycott the Guardian. But without The old newspaper’s stories to source from, perhaps it will finally resort to gathering a few more scoops of its own.

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