Time for the truth about journalism

“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]

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17 Replies to “Time for the truth about journalism

  1. Maurice, I’m wondering if you first heard about Heather’s post via yesterday’s PR Daily News. That was the one that had an “editorial” paragraph regarding the post (hed: Don’t blame PR for devaluing the news), which didn’t actually bear that much resemblance to Heather’s actual post. At least in my opinion.

    Don, if you haven’t seen it, I’d be happy to forward it to you.

    1. Judy – the irony of the PR Daily News paragraph is that it practised what I was criticising by twisting the actual blog focus with a more contentious angle. What is it they say about never letting the facts interfere with the story?

      1. I know what you mean; it’s almost like a (supposedly) PR-oriented “tabloid.” For example, I’ve noticed a fondness for (scraping) stories that relate to “PR Disasters.” Even if the scraped article itself does not use those words. 🙂 (A recent article in the New York Times comes to mind.)

        Oh well, I’m sure such tactics draws in readers. What would be nice is if the readers would take the time to give a thorough read to the source article (and authors), rather than the editorializing by the third-party contributor or “publication.”

  2. Sometimes I am at a loss for words to respond to a post in blah, blah tone of voice as the one above. But you handled it quite well, Heather.

  3. Paul – I never claimed there was a lost era of high quality journalism – but that modern journalists should wake up to the reality that poor standards of fact checking, etc, are as big an issue as commercialisation, public relations, social media etc. There is still good quality information, writing, insight etc around, and it is as likely to be found online as in traditional media. But so is utter rubbish as likely to be found on both.

    Of course, mainstream media remains influential, but being a “professional” journalist (by which I mean making your living from it) doesn’t give anyone any automatic credibility. That’s what so many of the journalists I hear moaning seem to believe.

    Maurice – sorry you feel the post is blah, blah, blah until Paul’s shiny nugget. But I understood Paul is saying that the pressure of social media will make mainstream media raise its game hence leading to a Golden Age of quality. Surely that supports what I was arguing for in the first place?

  4. Blah blah blah . . . and then a truly shiny nugget from Mr. Seaman, “I think the pressure of social media on mainstream media might just produce a real Golden Age of quality …”

    Ya got that right Paul and that is what really pisses off the elite.

  5. Oh dear, I fear that we are in danger of sounding like grumpy old folk dreaming of a lost Golden Age of journalism. Sorry, but it never existed. Journalism today is not much worse or better than it has ever been. Moreover, mainstream media remains influential on a grand scale despite declining circulations of newspapers. But mags are booming, and one of the best, The Economist, calls itself a newspaper!

    Take investigative journalism. Even a classic such as Watergate had more in common with Wikileaks-led investigations (lucky journalists gifted a story from a Deep Throat) than many people now care to remember.

    But here’s the good news: I think the pressure of social media on mainstream media might just produce a real Golden Age of quality, but that’s a prediction, not a promise…

    From that perspective – I say, don’t panic and don’t overstate what’s going on today or what was on offer yesterday etc.

  6. Heather — Since you mention The Sun, you must have heard of the joke way back in the 90s when Rupert Murdoch purportedly approaches Harrods to sell advertising space. Whereupon the proprietor of Harrods (Al Fayed?) retorts: The Sun’s readers are our shop-lifters.
    Beat that one for a stereotype =:-)

  7. Don – interesting observation about the subjectivity of “quality”. My use of the term is more in reference to aspects such as accuracy and clarity of communication rather than a judgement on whether or not information per se if of quality. I’ve always admired the ability of a Sun journalist to convey a story in 20-30 words (often much better “quality” of communications than pages on the same topic in a traditional broadsheet publication). But fabrication and poor research is evidence to me of a lack of quality standards regardless of the nature of the media or the lifestyles of its readers/viewers/listeners.

      1. Don – thanks for clarifying. Interestingly those terms are rarely heard in UK in segmenting the media these days. I’m not sure that there is much belief that the traditional broadsheet papers (most of which are now tabloid format) are of a higher quality any more! In terms of their audience, I always remember the opening of the Channel Tunnel when the operator was criticised by The Sun for refusing to offer a promotion for its readers. The reason was that its readers were too downmarket – to which the Sun provided the data that more ABC1 (traditional higher status measure) people read this paper than any broadsheet. Always a reminder to me of not just targetting on basis of stereotypes.

  8. As a former journalist (who has moved to the darker side), I’ve afterwards tried to argue that “objectivity”
    was always a myth to the horror and dismay of my former colleagues.

    Having said that, I’ve the following question: What right has “the elite” to presuppose that quality content is what represents the desired norm? And isn’t quality itself subjective? Consider the lifestyles of the readers of The Sun and The Economist? Have they the same “quality” standards?

  9. Thanks for your excellent clarification. Of course, I agree with you that part of the solution is to demand more professionalism and to expose the bitchy nonsense that currently poses as an excuse for the lack of it. You are spot on.

    As to the Edelman trust survey, I question the very notion that there has been a significant decline in trust in society (but also that there was ever great trust put in “people like us”). The whole issue needs redefinition. I have a major chapter in a book coming out later this month or early next which seeks to substantiate my viewpoint (I won’t spoil it now).

  10. Thanks Sean – the US experience seems to reflect that of the UK. Would be interesting to hear views of others based in different parts of the world whether their media history and present reflects our perspectives.

    Paul – I’m not saying amateurs can replace professionals – although I believe “amateur” (meaning of lesser quality) is increasingly evident both online and in traditional media (regardless of whether it is generated by citizens, paid journalists, columnists, direct from PR materials, etc). What I am advocating is more “professionalism” (by which I mean quality and standards) amongst those who claim the title of journalism (and come to that in public relations too).

    It seems to me that “traditional” journalists who are frequently bemoaning their lot, blaming the influence of PR or criticising online material are not reflecting how they are different on the basis of being better at journalism. Their “amateur” performance evidenced by a lack of fact checking, reproducing PR materials, focus on the trivial and so forth, does nothing to demonstrate the valuable role that journalism should play in modern society.

    BTW, I love the way you keep citing the Edelman Trust study despite having previously criticised its methodology. And there’s a circular argument there, if online communications by the masses largely repeats what is written by others especially “mainstream media” – is the declining trust in such people like us because what they are saying is the same rubbish as most of the “traditional” media?

  11. Heather, you make some very valid points. Not least that in actual fact all journalism is (and always has been) opinion driven, right from the moment it decides which facts and stories to select. However if you are trying to say that amateurs can replace professionals, then I disagree with you wholeheartedly. Moreover, mass blogging is being supplanted by mass Twitter, which mainly just redistributes material produced by others (much of it from mainstream media). And the public it would seem – based on Edelman’s trust survey results – is increasingly saying it is placing less and less trust in “people like me” (that is in social media, including the likes of Facebook mates). The time has come, I think, for firms and institutions to be much more robust in their dealings with the media of all sorts and also, in part, to become the media (social or otherwise). But the content has to be fair, professional, compelling and honest – premised on the basis that there’s nothing wrong with advocating self interest. My online review “21st Century PR issues” will be exploring this issue on Monday in the first of a series of articles focused on redefining how firms and other institutions should relate to the media.

  12. Heather, a great and important post. Our friends in the putative Fourth Estate indeed do see themselves as holy warriors, advocates for the underdogs. It’s what drew me to journalism in the first place — and Watergate was my touchstone.

    Of late, I’ve come to feel that this set of paladins of truth is a construct of a very narrow time — the US’s Murrow to Cronkite and Woodward/Bernstein. The penny press had no “journalistic integrity” — Hearst wanted to sell papers and make himself US President. Even objectivity as a goal is a myth — no one can reasonably expect true objectivity from humans.

    We’re in the age now of balance — we have a multiplicity of sources, right, left and center; for profit and not, widely circulated and narrowly — and it’s up to all of us to make choices that address our personal likes and dislikes.

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