It takes two to tango, but do sources take the lead? A study of the rise of press releases in Flemish newspapers

Sarah Van Leuven , Karin Raeymaeckers ,
A question of power


The goal of this study is first to examine whether, how and how far the commercialsation of the media sector affects changes in the relationship between journalists and their sources. Second, we want to check if this impacts on the construction of the mediatized public sphere (Habermas, 2006). Ample research has shown that the commercialization and professionalization of the journalistic field lead to cost reduction and standardization of news production (e.g. Gans, 1979; Lewis, Willliams & Franklin, 2008). Thus, journalists develop routines and easily applicable practices for information gathering to produce news efficiently with few resources in a limited time frame. It is clear that pre-packaged material, such as press releases and press conferences, meets these journalistic needs. Public relations practitioners indeed deliver ‘information subsidies’ or ready-to-use news that can be planned out in advance and copy-pasted in a news article (Carlson & Franklin, 2011; Gandy, 1982). Research has shown that journalists increasingly incorporate pre-packaged information – and especially public relations material – in their news output (Buijs et al. 2009; Lewis, Williams, Franklin, Thomas, & Mosdell, 2006). Yet, research about the use of public relations in Flemish news media is still lacking. We want to fill this gap by analyzing the presence of pre-packaged information and especially press releases in Flemish newspapers. The empirical research focuses on sourcing practices in the newsrooms of four Flemish newspapers. By means of a quantitative content analysis we examine the source use in their foreign news output over a period of 15 years (1995-2010). After this large-scale study with a broad perspective on pre-packaged news in general, we will conduct a more in-depth case study content analysis to examine how and how far these four newspapers adopt press release material of the nongovernmental organization Doctors Without Borders (Flemish department) (...)