News access revisited: NGO's as the new newsmakers? A study of MSF press releases in foreign coverage

Sarah Van Leuven , Karin Raeymaeckers ,
62st annual ICA conference


News media are considered to be facilitators of the democratic process that disseminate reliable and high quality information. Yet, traditional media brands increasingly embody economic considerations. The British investigative journalist Nick Davies takes a black view of the journalistic profession in the 21st century. In his famous book Flat Earth News (2008) he describes how journalists increasingly produce more content with less resources. Ample studies have empirically demonstrated the tendency of ‘churnalism’ or the mounting use of pre-packaged content – and especially press releases - to reduce the costs of news production. Most studies have moreover shown that public relations mainly benefit mainstream actors in terms of news access (Curtin, 1999; Lewis et al., 2006, 2008a; McManus, 1994). Yet, this approach of journalist-source relations is increasingly criticised in the context of (digital) network communication, globalisation and glocalisation, and the rise of a global civil society (Castells, 2008). Moreover, journalists seem to be less reluctant towards pre-packaged news of ‘advocates of the public interest’ such as non-governmental organisations (NGO) or citizens (Curtin, 1999; Machill, Beiler and Schmutz, 2006; Reich, 2011). Few studies however examined whether public relations activities result in more news access for these non-mainstream actors. Therefore, we set up a content analysis to study how and how far press releases of the Flemish department of the international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are adopted in the foreign coverage of four Flemish newspapers (1995-2010).