Journalism Vacuum Filled by PR Professionals, or Spin Doctors?

First of all, I love the music of the Spin Doctors.  Too bad they went away.  But other references, like those listed below, just piss me off.

As background, I read a recent study in the Columbia Journalism Review and co-published in the Alaska Dispatch (I sort of scratched my head on the choice of this outlet) entitled “PR industry fills vacuum left by shrinking newsrooms.”  The premise of this pretty long article/study (so settle in with a cup of coffee if you plan to read the whole thing) is that traditional (read: print, TV and radio) journalism is on the decline and the void is being filled by public relations people.  No argument there.

The article lays out a stark contrast between a shrinking industry and one that is growing substantially:

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they [the researchers] found that the number of journalists has fallen drastically while public relations people have multiplied at an even faster rate. In 1980, there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists. In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped, better financed.”

Hmm.  I smell some bias coming on from words like “better equipped” and “better financed.”  And “multiplied,” like a virus.

But fair enough, but these facts remind me of the old saying that I am pretty sure was invented in Washington, DC of “lies, damned lies and statistics.”  Here is where the true slant of the article appears (on page two of eight, no less):

“I don’t know anyone who can look at that calculus and see a very good outcome,” said Professor McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois. The dangers are clear. As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it. “What we are seeing now is the demise of journalism at the same time we have an increasing level of public relations and propaganda,” McChesney said. “We are entering a zone that has never been seen before in this country.”

Newsflash to Professor McChesney:  this practice has been going on since the time of Edward Bernays, who is widely recognized one of the founding fathers of public relations.  The nephew of Sigmund Freud, he openly admitted that he employed techniques that would appeal to one’s subconscious to encourage interest in a product or a cause.   And I don’t know the statistics about journalists to public relations people in Bernays’ time, but I am pretty sure that he was outnumbered and outgunned. Oh, and Bernays and Arthur Page (whose “Page Principles” for good public relations ethics and practices are not even mentioned in this article/study.

The bias continues:

It’s also getting tougher to know when a storyline originates with a self-interested party producing its own story. In 2005 and 2006, the New York Times and the advocacy group PR Watch did separate reports detailing how television news was airing video news releases prepared by corporate or government PR offices, working them into stories as part of their newscasts. PR Watch listed 77 stations which aired the reports, some of them broadcast nearly verbatim.

First, even with news organizations that are strapped for resources, facing a 24 hour news cycle and processing hundreds of pitches a day, it is still incumbent upon the journalist to check out the story. Or, when interested, FACT CHECK the story.  If all of those stations ran the story verbatim, they were either video news releases or represent really sloppy journalism.  And 77 newsrooms out of how many studied?

The thing that frosts me the most about this whole piece is the depiction of the encroaching menace of the practice of public relations as journalism retreats. One of the more frequent criticisms of public relations and public affairs groups is the creation and promotion of “front groups,” meaning that they recruit, organize and sometimes direct the activities of a group of people to impact a political or regulatory outcome – and carry out propaganda on behalf of clients with “Big” in their monikers like “Big Oil” and “Big Tobacco.”  Think Working Families for Wal*Mart as a group that was not transparent about its intended outcome nor sources of funding and got busted – big time.

But here’s a newsflash to those who slam the industry for things like “propaganda” or “front groups”:  what the hell is political organizing and what are political campaigns? Political parties actively seek out, recruit and try to convince voters of a point of view.  Hell, they even throw a big party every four years called a “convention.”  And after debates, the place where the media and public relations professionals is called the SPIN ROOM, for Christ’s sake. This is embraced as part of our democratic process, yet if you compare the accusations in this article like “spin” and “propaganda,” why are these widely accepted practices and dearly held beliefs when organizing for another cause is scorned?

Three caveats:

  • Not all PR practitioners are good guys.  Some of them really suck.
  • To avoid being called “front group” or practicing “astroturf,” you need to have complete transparency about who you are and who supports you.  This is the same thing as the annoying thing at the end of political commercials like “I’m Karl Marx, and I approve this message” – or worse yet, the impossible to read fine print at the bottom of the screen that appears for about .1 seconds describing who paid for the ad.
  • Never, ever lie.  If you lie, you get busted, especially in the rough and tumble world of public relations, public affairs and politics.  If you are engaged in a fight and have opposition, someone will find you out and bust you – publicly.

The point that I am trying to make is that the indignation and fear-mongering practiced by Professor McChesney is at best, disingenuous, and at worst – and here is his favorite word – “spin.”

And that pisses me off.




  1. A couple of things struck me when, after reading your post, I went across and read the AD/CJR one… well, many things struck me, but a couple that I can articulate right now. First, how ironic is it that the “vacuum” story itself has such a slant, while the writer implies that journalism doesn’t. Call me cynical, but I have not yet come across any “journalism” that is NOT slanted, in one way or another. Second, I absolutely agree with all your points – why is it PR pros fault when journos don’t do their due diligence? Third, what do you want to bet that CJR/AD put out a press release & pitched media on covering this story?!

    Talk about spin indeed.

  2. Jen Zingsheim Says: June 2, 2011 at 6:37 am

    I think the biggest problem are the three caveats you lay out at the end of your piece. There are plenty of PR practitioners that do an above-board, truth-telling job. Unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to tarnish the reputation of the entire industry. The bad apples are out there, and many of them don’t really understand PR–it’s the quirk of this profession: you don’t need a degree certification for PR (I don’t have one), you don’t need to pass an even rudimentary test to practice PR (I didn’t), and an APR is a designation that only others within the industry even understand. I can’t think of any job description I’ve read from a company that even suggested “APR preferred.”

    There’s also a reluctance to call out the bad actors. We all know they exist, and all we can do is watch while they practice a shady, underhanded form of PR–and in spite of this, or perhaps because of it–they still manage to get clients. And when they inevitably get caught, all PR is painted with that rep.

    I know there is a lot of pressure on the news industry. Fewer journalists mean that they are stretched to near breaking point. What’s the answer? I don’t really know. Maybe an online section of the paper that is clear about the fact that they are simply using press releases? Maybe original reporting should be labeled as such–a clear indicator that yes, this story has been vetted and researched.

    Finally, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing phrases like “never before seen in this country.” Newspapers used to be horribly biased, stories were fabricated, etc. in the early years of this country. The advent of an independent press is a fairly recent thing. I’m saying this as a strong and ardent advocate of the mainstream press–I think it is essential.

    The question is, will people pay for it? That’s what all of this boils down to. Companies are willing to pay for PR, but many no longer see the value of paying for news, so we have a lopsided quantity of PR people vs. journalists. This is a basic supply and demand issue, isn’t it?

  3. Jen,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I added the caveats because of the whole kerfuffle a while back about Scoble and John Aravosis (who took me on personally) saying that all PR pitches “suck.” So I sort of wanted to inoculate myself against criticism that I am a shill for the industry. And there are agencies who have codes of conduct like Burson who just blew it in a major way – and whose employees, the last time I checked, were not fired. I don’t put a lot of faith in accreditations because they are self-policing. And there is a LOT of pressure for new business and new clients.

    If journalists are going to wear the hat of the 4th Estate, then do it. They get paid too (and granted there are fewer journalists and a longer news cycle), but don’t operate from a high horse if you are passing through press releases. And for God’s sake, don’t complain about pitches either.

    And in my mind, newspapers ARE currently biased. As you know, I live and work in DC and all I have to do is read an article about President Obama (or back in the day, President Bush) to see how terribly slanted they are – and how some facts are either glossed over or outright suppressed. And look at the pictures too: Washington Post? Obama smiling or looking presidential. The Times? Looking bad or like a dictator. Bias or propaganda is alive and well in the media today.

    And I suppose that I have been in DC WAY too long, but I can’t read and article in a major paper without wondering from where the story originated – a blog, press release, personal vendetta, etc. I see a LOT of that at work.

    Thanks again for chiming in.


  4. Jen Zingsheim Says: June 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Good point about bias, it exists everywhere. There are degrees of it, and I guess what I was trying to get at is the statement McChesney made speaks of a time past that never really existed.

    I agree that journalists should do their jobs. I also think that journalism schools should prepare them more for the unglamorous work that is ahead of them. I think too many of them suffer from this malady:

  5. […] Journalism Vacuum Filled by PR Professionals, or Spin Doctors? – I love this piece from Mark Story. Anyone in the PR space worth their weight in salt knows that newsrooms are filled with bias and also roll their eyes when they hear a fellow flack has jumped ship to a newsroom. My whole take on this is moves to be PR-driven newsrooms or driven by former PR folks is that our news is crap and that we just can’t trust it. […]

  6. […] Implications of PR Filling the News Gap (by @mstory123 via @Shonali): […]

  7. […] Journalism vacuum filled by PR professionals, or spin doctors? by Mark […]

  8. My eyes keep wondering back to the labor statistics about PR people outnumbering journalists… Guess the study didn’t take into an account that many of those new PR people are journalists who have crossed over from journalism. So then who are the spin doctors?

  9. Brian Cohen Says: January 22, 2012 at 6:07 am

    I see a clear trend emerging that represents a fundamental shift in both the practice of Public Relations and the value it provides to customers that will begin to make our profession more enduring and respected. As the traditional media continues to fractionate, PR professionals will pick up their (both) game and become “PR Journalistists” writing/publishing directly to their customers through various mediums. Because we live in a “open”Social Medium, this will force and allow PR professionals to be recognized as honest providers/brokers/facilitators of information/knowledge that seek to tell the truth well.

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