This study by Swiss Propaganda Research was first published in 2016, it is presented by off-guardian.org in English for the first time. Translated by Terje Maloy.
It is one of the most important aspects of our media system – and yet hardly known to the public: most of the international news coverage in Western media is provided by only three global news agencies based in New York, London and Paris.
The key role played by these agencies means that Western media often report on the same topics, even using the same wording. In addition, governments, military and intelligence services use these global news agencies as multipliers to spread their messages around the world.
A study of the Syria war coverage by nine leading European newspapers clearly illustrates these issues: 78% of all articles were based in whole or in part on agency reports, yet 0% on investigative research. Moreover, 82% of all opinion pieces and interviews were in favor of the US and NATO intervention, while propaganda was attributed exclusively to the opposite side.
Part 3 - Small abbreviation, great effect
However, there is a simple reason why the global agencies, despite their importance, are virtually unknown to the general public. To quote a Swiss media professor:
“Radio and television usually do not name their sources, and only specialists can decipher references in magazines.”
The motive for this discretion, however, should be clear: news outlets are not particularly keen to let readers know that they haven’t researched most of their contributions themselves.
The following figure shows some examples of source tagging in popular German-language newspapers. Next to the agency abbreviations we find the initials of editors who have edited the respective agency report.
Occasionally, newspapers use agency material but do not label it at all. A study in 2011 from the Swiss Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society at the University of Zurich came to the following conclusions (FOEG 2011):
“Agency contributions are exploited integrally without labeling them, or they are partially rewritten to make them appear as an editorial contribution. In addition, there is a practice of ’spicing up‘ agency reports with little effort: for example, unpublished agency reports are enriched with images and graphics and presented as comprehensive articles.”
The agencies play a prominent role not only in the press, but also in private and public broadcasting. This is confirmed by Volker Braeutigam, who worked for the German state broadcaster ARD for ten years and views the dominance of these agencies critically:
“One fundamental problem is that the newsroom at ARD sources its information mainly from three sources: the news agencies DPA/AP, Reuters and AFP: one German/American, one British and one French….The editor working on a news topic only needs to select a few text passages on the screen that he considers essential, rearrange them and glue them together with a few flourishes.”
Swiss Radio and Television (SRF), too, largely bases itself on reports from these agencies. Asked by viewers why a peace march in Ukraine was not reported, the editors said: “To date, we have not received a single report of this march from the independent agencies Reuters, AP and AFP.”
In fact, not only the text, but also the images, sound and video recordings that we encounter in our media every day, are mostly from the very same agencies. What the uninitiated audience might think of as contributions from their local newspaper or TV station, are actually copied reports from New York, London and Paris.
Some media have even gone a step further and have, for lack of resources, outsourced their entire foreign editorial office to an agency. Moreover, it is well known that many news portals on the internet mostly publish agency reports (see e.g., Paterson 2007, Johnston 2011, MacGregor 2013).
In the end, this dependency on the global agencies creates a striking similarity in international reporting: from Vienna to Washington, our media often report the same topics, using many of the same phrases – a phenomenon that would otherwise rather be associated with »controlled media« in authoritarian states.
The following graphic shows some examples from German and international publications. As you can see, despite the claimed objectivity, a slight (geo-)political bias sometimes creeps in.
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