“Journalism is just ditchwater”, a quote attributed to Carlyle in 1881, contrasts with the claims of modern journalists who believe they play a critical role in society as the Fourth Estate following in the footsteps of the investigative power evidenced in the Watergate saga. It is this idea of the power of the media that has appealed to PR practitioners, who have traditionally looked to journalists as influencers, gate-keepers and agenda setters.
From this lofty position, it is easy to see why journalists are critical of public relations, seeing it as interfering with their role as truth-seekers with PR practitioners acting as barriers to the vital information the media need to expose powerful individuals and organisations who can afford to employ PR professionals to protect them from the exposure of media attention. Of course, this ignores the fact that access to the media is not restricted to PR professionals; whilst not-for-profit and other “underdogs” are adept at gaining media headlines, often at the expense of the establishment in society.
Journalists also claim that their expert training sets them apart from others, especially in terms of developing their professional judgement about what is news and how to present this to the public. As such journalists are perceived as an “elite” without whom, society would not function effectively. This echoes the belief of Edward Bernays that PR practitioners also played such a role in helping interpret information on behalf of the public.
This argument about the value of journalism acting on behalf of the public is increasingly questionable. Today the public is more media literate and for every exposé in the public interest (such as the Pakistan cricket scandal) there is evidence of unethical practice (such as phone tapping by the same newspaper). An argument of “the ends justifies the means” may be made – but coming from an example of a newspaper which is adept at titillation and celebrity nonsense, this is hard to credit.
Then public relations gets the blame for lowering standards – it is our fault that celebrity culture is rife in media coverage (even the so called “quality media”). But could publicists be so successful if the media wasn’t so open to such stories. Chicken and egg situation. Indeed, it would be helpful if the media could distinguish between publicists and PR professionals. The UK media is widely quoting Max Clifford in respect of a situation affecting a senior British politician, despite his obvious lack of experience or qualifications in this matter. Indeed, given Clifford’s track record as a publicist in endorsing lying, whilst criticising hypocrisy, why would any media find him credible?
This reflects another trend among the media where the calibre of “experts” is questionable. Interviewing fellow journalists is common, whilst the “rent-a-gob” crowd appear habitually on the sofas of serious news programmes. There is increasingly a lack of attention to detail, including basic facts. Two minutes searching media articles will reveal how absolute data often differs between news reports, and errors are propagated by poor research.
Here the excuse is that the media are under increased pressures with less time and fewer resources available for accuracy. Frankly it shouldn’t take much to check essential facts and who can be surprised if journalists are no longer viewed as the ultimate sources on information when they get the basics wrong.
Commercial pressures are frequently cited as affecting the quality of journalism. Yet, the media has historically been driven by financial motives – those who had the power or an agenda founded most major newspapers and commercial television is just that. State run media has other pressures and is frequently criticised for being propaganda.
Enter the rise of “citizen journalism” thanks to the Internet and social media. Here journalism rises further on its high horse claiming that this is largely opinion driven, unaccountable and of poor quality (see Mitch Joel‘s interesting post on the subject). I recently heard such arguments from journalists who similarly bemoaned the availability of free copy, editors demanding “content”, publications that simply reproduce media releases, questionable websites and poor writing standards. These same journalists rely on PR practitioners to fully fund attendance at media events, provide copy-ready information (increasingly to websites), which they even supplement with grammatically incorrect material.
I’d like to say that I’m talking about the minority of journalists here with the majority reflecting higher ideals, standards and beliefs. But the truth is that high quality journalists are increasingly rare.
Few of the “old school” media are engaging with social media in my experience, beyond submitting tweaked media releases to websites. But this doesn’t stop them having an opinion about the “amateurs” writing and communicating online. This view of the public echoes that dismissal of the masses who needed an “elite” back in the early 19th century. Ironically the Oxford English Dictionary includes a definition of journalism from 1848 as “keeping a journal”.
Another truth is that more and more of the public are not convinced that they want an elite to provide them with news, opinion, endorsements or entertainment. This is a shame, but explains why many PR practitioners are turning to online sources for influencers these days. Good quality communication from reliable, independent and credible sources is important for society and for public relations (whether it is via print/broadcast/online). I’d like more journalists to reflect this and not just claim it. Otherwise, they will be increasingly marginalised by PR practitioners and the public alike. And that’s the truth.
[Thanks to Judy Gombita for input to this post]