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Public Relations vs. Journalism
July 12, 2011 10:47 PM   Subscribe

PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms - "You would go into these hearings and there would be more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three" ..it's getting tougher to know when a storyline originates with a self-interested party producing its own story.
posted by thisisdrew (43 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bill Hicks was an optimist.
posted by LordSludge at 10:55 PM on July 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


I love you, cold, unfeeling invisible hand.
posted by lekvar at 11:02 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


it's getting tougher to know when a storyline originates with a self-interested party producing its own story

Not really. It's getting far easier. Before, there was a non-trivial probability that the story started from a fair process of journalistic inquiry. Now, odds are darn high that what you're reading is the work of a self-interested party producing its own story.

Don't worry though; you can still have balance. Sometimes two parties have opposite angles and have opposing PR armies recruited to push them. The system works great if every side has its own army.
posted by zachlipton at 11:09 PM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Like Wikipedia, the whole news system is corrupt with self interest, yet somehow it sort of works, just know that much of it is essentially PR so always read between the lines and don't assume objective impartial even if it sounds that way. Obvious points I guess.
posted by stbalbach at 11:12 PM on July 12, 2011


True story. I met a friend and a couple of lobbyists for a drink and gossip. One had a minor story about one of their clients, but it tied in to a bigger issue, so I expressed interest. They told me that they had just emailed the press release to a major paper in Brussels, who had replied with no message, just emailed them a rate sheet.

Secondly, there are a lot of non-press people sitting in the press conferences, usually either room meat or lobbyists.
posted by quarsan at 11:13 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd recommend reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies for more on this. Very good book, covers stuff like the 'dark arts' in the News of the World scandal as well.
posted by MattWPBS at 11:16 PM on July 12, 2011


Don't believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
posted by fullerine at 11:17 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, you've got unlimited corporations owning the majority of media voices, and for a corporation journalists are a major labor cost and at best all they do is get you into trouble, so it make sense to see if they can do less for less, especially since it's only a tiny minority that actually actively care about this shit enough to do something about it — as opposed to the vast mass of folks who care passively about it, but have their own shit to deal with.

The market's not good at supporting some things that are important to a functioning democracy, and unfortunately the only people that do care are a bunch of NPR nerds.
posted by klangklangston at 11:20 PM on July 12, 2011


Oh, and the "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" is a good book on this.
posted by klangklangston at 11:21 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


While the whole News of the World thing was blowing up, I couldn't get past Rebekah Brooks' uncanny resemblance to Absolutely Fabulous PR agent Eddie Monsoon.

I hope, for the sake of next month's production of new AbFab episodes, that the show's writers picked up on that, too.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:24 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


just know that much of it is essentially PR so always read between the lines and don't assume objective impartial even if it sounds that way.

What "reading between the lines" means in practice is that you just impose your own views on the story (or PR). You may as well not have read it.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:39 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's actually a site to help detect when an article is just PR copypasta - http://churnalism.com/
posted by titus-g at 11:48 PM on July 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


Journalism killed itself when most of the J-Schools combined the PR and journalism students into one program. Often, your first few core courses are going to be combined classes and many of the students are there to get a PR degree.

What other academic program decides to fix their program by actively recruiting and teaching students whose choice of profession is anti-ethical to the program's core values? The PR industry is against everything investigative journalism stands for.

Might as well have the B-School teach a few courses on Marxism.
posted by formless at 11:52 PM on July 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


In other news, papers rely on ad revenue and mindless consumer drivel to deliver the actual, you know, news. This really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who isn't a Metro-reading consumer zombie. Every country should have a BBC.
posted by londonmark at 12:17 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


PR Man has conquered the world. He still isn’t satisfied.
posted by chavenet at 12:17 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, The Economist did a story like the one in the OP in May: Slime Slinging
posted by chavenet at 12:20 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


and unfortunately the only people that do care are a bunch of NPR nerds.

lol, like they matter.
posted by clavdivs at 12:36 AM on July 13, 2011


Might as well have the B-School teach a few courses on Marxism.

Actually, that would be an interesting thing to do. Coincidentally, I have worked with a number of emigres from the former Soviet bloc, and more than one has observed to me how Marx' theories about labour as taught to them in their youth have helped them become successful capitalists.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:49 AM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


It took Drew Armstrong, a health-care reporter for Bloomberg, months to nail stories showing how the health-insurance industry had funded efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fight against changing the health system.

Armstrong dug into tax records to show what had previously been hidden -- that AHIP contributed a whopping $86.2 million to the Chamber to fight against the Obama health-care plan. "I was shocked by the amount," Armstrong said. "It was 40 percent of the Chamber's budget."


Reading this, I now hate all things.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:44 AM on July 13, 2011


The interesting thing is that is that they also (supposedly) spent money to promote Obama's health-care plan as well, they basically agreed to spend money promoting the policies in order to get favorable concessions in the bill. Then later with the other hand, they turned around and lobbied against the bill after they got the concession they wanted.
posted by delmoi at 3:48 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and the "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" is a good book on this.

It was such a good book, they made a movie! Toxic Sludge Is Good For You (45m)
posted by hippybear at 4:32 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


My local NPR affiliate (a university-based radio station) has become quite notorious for palming-off PR releases as "local" news stories. Unfortunately, this being Indiana, the PR sources tend to be exclusively from the Chamber of Commerce or Governor Mitch Daniels side of things. It's gotten to the point where I simply turn-down the audio when the local news part of the broadcast begins. It's very sad, really.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:44 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Years ago in the mid-late 90s I saw a CNN story on "a new bottled water straight from the Glaciers, as pure as you can get" and I'm like.... This is a fucking ad, this isn't news.

And that made me realize something about the world of "news" ever since. And that was when I was calling myself a capitalist and it struck me as wrong.

*sigh*
posted by symbioid at 8:15 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The only way to derive good information from self-interested parties is triangulation. Make your best guess as to their beliefs, interests, and biases; find out what they all have to say about your topic of interest; filter out anything so vague or bombastic as to be more trouble to read through than it's worth; resolve contradictions between sources using your best judgment and research; and with what's left, make an educated guess as to what facts would cause these sources to respond in this way.

There was never truly a time when you didn't need to do this. Perhaps you had someone else doing it for you, and you trusted them with all the above. That can be a good decision, if you have experience suggesting they're good at it. But just because someone's a journalist doesn't mean they're good at this. Reporters report. It's not their job to triangulate on the truth.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:17 AM on July 13, 2011


To put it more simply: News is a kind of public relations. The entity doing the relating is a news organization, whose interests are in selling stories about current events to a particular audience.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:20 AM on July 13, 2011


To put it more simply: News is a kind of public relations. The entity doing the relating is a news organization, whose interests are in selling stories about current events to a particular audience to advertisers.

FTFY.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:23 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The system works great if every side has its own army.

actually no. Most of the time the truth is somewhere in the middle getting the life squeezed out of it.
posted by any major dude at 8:35 AM on July 13, 2011


"News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising".
- former NBC news President Rubin Frank
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:35 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


"News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising".
- former NBC news President Rubin Frank


and boy didn't the Bush administration use this narrow minded view to their advantage. Commit all your crimes in the light of day and make sure there is no exclusive to be had and watch will glee as the entire mainstream media trying to find the next Watergate just shrugs. The worst adage created by the news media is "it's not the crime it's the cover up", no assholes, it's the fucking crime, do your damn job!
posted by any major dude at 8:55 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Reporters report. It's not their job to triangulate on the truth.

Huh? I couldn't disagree more. I feel it is precisely the job of journalists to synthesize conflicting information and, by doing so, to seek something closer to "truth." Or, as the Pew Research Center's Principles of Journalism put it:
Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.

Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can--and must--pursue it in a practical sense. This "journalistic truth" is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built--context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum. As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need--not less--for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context.
If I just wanted straight-up reporting from a single point of view, I'd read the press release myself. Reporting is simply a component of the journalistic process, and it's arguably less important now than ever with the rise of social media. Maybe it's a sign of just how far journalism has fallen that we don't consider "triangulating on the truth" to be a part of the profession anymore.
posted by zachlipton at 8:58 AM on July 13, 2011


Sys Rq: true, but in this case, one implies the other.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:59 AM on July 13, 2011


"The system works great if every side has its own army."

Yeah, no. Then truth comes down to might=right.

actually no. Most of the time the truth is somewhere in the middle getting the life squeezed out of it.

This is an especially pernicious though widespread belief and it's been a major contributing factor in the watering down of news, and the general apathetic reaction the general public expresses when faced with the rare excellent investigative article- thereby lowering the incentive for media outlets to pour money into great journalism.
posted by stagewhisper at 9:29 AM on July 13, 2011


My local NPR affiliate (a university-based radio station) has become quite notorious for palming-off PR releases as "local" news stories. Unfortunately, this being Indiana, the PR sources tend to be exclusively from the Chamber of Commerce or Governor Mitch Daniels side of things. It's gotten to the point where I simply turn-down the audio when the local news part of the broadcast begins. It's very sad, really.

I've had the same sneaking suspicions of NPR in NYC. Ever since the Republicans began the full court press on threatening to defund NPR and PBS NPR bends over backwards to include Republican propaganda as a counterpoint when it's obviously PR propaganda. I can't tell you how many times they've included that moron from "The Club for Wealth" as the "conservative" rebuttal. It's become cable news on the radio.
posted by any major dude at 9:35 AM on July 13, 2011


I hear so many stories from journalist friends who say these PR people are constantly breathing down their necks. It's crazy.
posted by mikeyla85 at 9:57 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whenever you read a news story, ask yourself--how did they story come to be? Who stands to benefit? If someone can benefit, you can bet there are PR people pitching the stories to the reporters. That's isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's important to consider the source (even if the source is hidden).
posted by stan.kjar at 10:03 AM on July 13, 2011


"The system works great if every side has its own army."

Yeah, no. Then truth comes down to might=right.


I know. Apparently the bitter sadness of sarcasm in the end of my comment there didn't quite read against the unprofessional blue background. Feel free to mentally add an "؟" to the end of it if you see fit. (That's an irony mark, though it can apparently be used for sarcasm too.)
posted by zachlipton at 10:07 AM on July 13, 2011


Whenever you read a news story, ask yourself--how did they story come to be? Who stands to benefit? If someone can benefit, you can bet there are PR people pitching the stories to the reporters. That's isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's important to consider the source (even if the source is hidden).

But it's far more insidious than that. It's one thing when the relationship is a straightforward "hey I've got a story for you, let me tell you about it" and the reporter talks to the PR rep, browses the press kit, actually asks a question or two for bonus points, and maybe writes a story. Pitching is at least a generally honest exchange between someone who wants to promote something and a journalist who, if the pitch isn't spammed all over the darn universe, frequently writes about that topic.

The problem is that it doesn't stop there. PR firms don't just pitch journalists, they brief analysts and "experts," who are the people generally identified in news stories making statements like "Bob Smith, senior technology analyst at Aperture Research, is optimistic about Pets.com: 'the pet goods e-commerce sector is set to become a $12 billion industry by 2002. By strategically leveraging synergistic relationships with its partners, Pets.com is poised to capture the bulk of this market." While no one really knows who these people are, these analysts seem more trustworthy in news copy because they appear as independent third-party experts. By cultivating relationships with analysts, PR professionals can get their message into the press organically, without even pitching a reporter. Journalist calls an analyst, says he's doing a back-to-school story and was wondering what's seen as the top three hot products for this fall, and the analyst remembers his chat with the PR rep and mentions their product.

For a more advanced take on this, PR firms can build up "experts" by arranging for speaking gigs, media appearances, etc... It's no surprise that Symantec says the internet is more dangerous than ever and every business should have an enterprise security suite, but when "Paul Johnson, noted cyber-security expert" (and who noted him anyway and for what?) says it at the annual Compusecure International Congress, it sure sounds darn important. Never-mind that Paul is affiliated with Symantec Research.

Or, you can go all out and just pay the "experts" to say what you want. As the article mentions, that's basically what the Pentagon did to get retired military officers on TV "news" to promote the Iraq War and Bush Administration policies. The Pentagon has a particularly insightful twist on this: they didn't even have to pay your spokesmen, just set them up on junkets, gave them talking points and tips about how to stay "on message," and hyped them up as "military analysts" for the news stations. The networks paid the spokesmen $500-$1000 to recite their Pentagon talking points, while the spokesmen weren't on the government payroll and were free to pursue their lucrative speaking gigs and advisory positions at defense contractors. Everybody wins, except for the American people, soldiers, the truth, and dead and wounded Iraqis.
posted by zachlipton at 10:41 AM on July 13, 2011 [17 favorites]


i wish i could favorite zachlipton's last comment a million times.
posted by liza at 10:55 AM on July 13, 2011


Compare what most of the comments in this thread are using as a functional definition of journalism with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

It becomes pretty damn obvious that a lot of what goes on in the media isn't journalism, though it may be intended to be mistaken for journalism. If you look back over the history of the press, it becomes apparent that the historical norm is hackery and flackery, the deviant behavior was the brief and short-lived outbursts of progressive muckraking in the late 19th century and the equally brief spurt of public-interest reporting in the 1970s. In other words, ethical journalism is deviant behavior.
posted by warbaby at 11:54 AM on July 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Along similar lines, WSB-TV here in Atlanta has given up any pretense of objectivity. They feature "news segments" featuring a rep from one of the big "personal injury" law firms delivering an extended advertisement of said firm thinly disguised as "public service announcements" like "don't drink and drive (or someone could get sued)" and "don't text and drive (or someone could get sued)".
posted by kjs3 at 1:12 PM on July 13, 2011


I currently work for a non-profit health organization that has a guy who writes "PSA's" full-time. I am no longer shocked at how many of these stories are run in the newspaper, verbatim. There is always one and up to four stories per day.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:22 PM on July 13, 2011


I have some friends who work in PR. They find it upsetting when I remark that "PR means lying." They find it more upsetting when they realize I'm not kidding.
posted by Ubermonkey at 6:18 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have some friends who work in PR. They find it upsetting when I remark that "PR means lying." They find it more upsetting when they realize I'm not kidding.

I don't think PR inherently means lying, and a lot of its practices are downright fine on their face. The problem is that it doesn't scale. If you're running a local car wash to raise money for charity and you call the local paper to tell them about it, you've just done PR. If a journalist asks to review your product, and you send him a sample (to borrow) along with some information about how it works and offer to answer any questions, you've just done PR. If you've put on an event with the goal of educating the public or "raising awareness," you've just done PR.

Part of the problem comes from completely sleazy, unethical, and untruthful behaviors to be sure, but most PR work doesn't involve blatant astroturfing, false flag operations, bribery, etc... The more insidious problem is what the article is talking about: the cumulative effect of the massive amount of resources devoted to PR as weighed against our shrinking newsrooms and the decline in journalistic quality. One reporter is doing the work of three, and he's expected to maintain a blog, tweet, and shoot videos now too, and he's supposed to cover the same beat in a world that seems to have more stories to tell every day while catering to whatever strategy management has dreamed up this week to make the public decide to buy the stinking paper.

Against this context, you've got an army of well-financed professionals who know how to play the game. Who wouldn't want strangers calling you up and helping you to do your job? If you're a overworked and underpaid reporter, having someone basically hand you a story is a pretty sweet deal. Plenty of it is innocuous enough; who could object to dietary advice from the American Heart Association or the announcement of a New Scientific Discovery at the local university? Even the mundane corporate stuff doesn't seem all that problematic: if a company hires a new executive or announces a new product, they are going to tell the press, and someone has to answer the phones, answer questions, arrange interviews, whatever.

But that kind of relationship doesn't scale in a world with ever more PR flacks and ever fewer journalists. The problem isn't just what the stories actually say or don't say, but even more insidiously in what stories get written at all. If you have to write three stories, are you going to start with the prepackaged news that's all around you and comes from people who are happy to help you, or are you going to start shipping off FOIA requests and cultivating sources for an investigative piece where many of the subjects involved will be downright hostile to you and you might never wind up with anything printable at all? Oh wait, your colleague just got laid off, so I also need you to cover his story on parking tickets and shoot some photos too, since we lost another photographer.

I'm going to go start drinking now, and I'm not even a journalist.
posted by zachlipton at 9:57 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


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