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Beyond the wire

Many hoped the web would be a democratising force, but international news online consists mainly of bland, recycled stories from a ruling duopoly.

Since the early 20th century, journalists have been making use of "news wire agencies" - organisations set up by the print media to collect and redistribute news from their newspaper members for use by other newspapers at home and abroad. The "wire" tag comes from their early use of telegraph technology to shift breaking news as fast as possible.

By the 1960s, there was concern that international news flow was being facilitated by only five news wire agencies. But by 2000, it was down to just two - the US-based Associated Press (AP) and the UK-based Reuters. Take a glance at the online versions of the NZ Herald or Fairfax's Stuff stable and the Reuters or AP brands can be seen all over the international stories.

Chris Paterson, a media academic based at the University of Ulster's Centre for Media Research who has been analysing global news flows for seven years, has concerns about the AP/Reuters duopoly. His research has previously concentrated on print and TV news, but his latest paper looks at online news in depth - with some worrying findings.

A decade ago, many hoped the web would evolve as a democratising force that could alleviate "information poverty", but Paterson's research has found that the international news we see online consists mainly of recycled stories from the two remaining wire services.

Highly popular portals like MSN or Yahoo are websites designed to serve as a web user's home page. Offering news as a "sticky" feature to attract users is a well-established portal strategy. As well as portals, the net has seen a proliferation of sites offering links to up-to-the-minute news items. But the research suggests this expansion is "a conjurer's trick - we are being duped by more brand labels on the same, very limited, news content".

Today online news is characterised by three types of content provider. The first group are traditional media outlets like the BBC or the New York Times, who combine original reporting with news agency content. In New Zealand, Stuff, the online Herald and so on would fit this category.

The second group are "disintermediated" producers of original news content. This group would include the NZ Press Association and Scoop here and the high-profile websites of AP and Reuters that deliver agency stories to news consumers globally.

The third group are intermediaries such as CNN Interactive and MSNBC, or in New Zealand TVNZ or XtraMSN, who, for international news at least, convey stories written by wire services with little or no editing. This group also includes "news aggregator" sites such as Yahoo, Altavista and Google for which AP and Reuters provide the lion's share of news, despite what Paterson calls an "audacious pretence at source diversity".

Google has developed searching algorithms for retrieving, selecting, ranking and linking to "4500 news sources updated continuously". This process can have bizarre results. "For a breaking story in China," says Paterson, "Google News consumers may be offered links to the news outlets like Arizona Republic or KRQE Television (New Mexico) or the Calgary Sun. But they will all be providing identical, unaltered wire agency copy."

Using some plagiarism detection software, the research also attempted to measure exactly how much news wire editorial ends up on online sites with little or no editing. In 2001, 68% of international news copy could be traced back to wire reports. By 2006, the figure was 85%, and there was clear evidence that news aggregators are reproducing more and more wire copy verbatim.

In 2006, only four media organisations, Reuters, AP, the BBC and Agence France-Presse (AFP), still do extensive inter-national reporting. A few such as CNN, MSN, New York Times and the Guardian do a little, but most none at all. So for international news you could just link to Reuters et al and ignore the rest, but you would get a very narrow worldview of global events.

News wire agencies have to try to please editors all over the world, so they have developed bland writing styles that create the appearance of objectivity and neutrality. But ideologically distinctive views of the world inevitably seep into the news coverage. Even the act of choosing which stories to cover will tend to reinforce the status quo - stories challenging the dominant political players on the world scene (in agency eyes, the US and UK) receive little attention.

All this has ramifications for New Zealand. A four-year study by production and communication company World Television logged all the New Zealand stories that attracted mass TV coverage overseas. As with print and online, the same duopoly rules international television news - Associated Press Television News (APTN) and Reuters.

The data collected shows there has recently been a 50% drop in the amount of domestically produced TV news coverage of New Zealand picked up by the wire agencies for distribution abroad. The decline was caused by less political coverage, fewer sports stories and a collapse in cultural stories. The loss of profile since Lord of the Rings, Whale Rider and the America's Cup highs has been compared to a similar shift in profile seen in Australia at the end of the Crocodile Dundee movies - dubbed the "Crocodile Dundee effect" due to its economic effect on tourism and the economy.

From 2004-06, overseas TV news viewers saw no stories on Kiwi business or trade. They saw various "bizarre/human interest" stories such as "Whipper the budgerigar", Shrek, and the damage done to a roof by a grapefruit-sized meteor. They saw four election stories, two on the successful election of Helen Clark, one focusing on an incident on election night with a light plane and one featuring Toby, a Jack Russell terrier in Wanaka that was registered to vote.

The research also logged stories that mentioned New Zealand but originated abroad. These went up by 300%, mainly due to a big increase in sports stories about golfer Michael Campbell after his US Open victory. So New Zealand's international broadcast image continues to be defined by its sporting abilities, some political coverage, bizarre/human interest stories and occasional hit movie.

This situation is a worry for a country trying to boost "brand New Zealand". The editorial decisions of agency news editors in Singapore (Reuters) and Hong Kong (APTN) not only define the television news image of New Zealand but also reinforce unchallenged cultural stereotypes - the macho rugby player, the eccentric inventor, the nervous sheep and so on.

Does it matter? The blognoscenti argue that TV, wire agencies and traditional newspapers are increasingly an irrelevance. With blogs, citizen journalism and personalised newsbots, the new media model is "cultural chaos", a phrase coined by Brian McNair of the Glasgow Media Unit to describe "a democratising force, demystifying established power (exposing) the rise of spin and promotional culture".

But Chris Paterson warns against the "anarcho-cyberjournalists" popping the champagne corks just yet. "The research shows that despite the deluge of information available online, the old media sources remain the privileged tellers of most of the stories circulating about the world. And for most end-users, the internet is a mass medium providing mostly illusory interactivity and mostly illusory diversity."