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?
- 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.