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How P.R. Is Killing Journalism

And why that's a problem even if you're not a journalist.
Feb 13, 2015
Eric Alterman is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, as well as a columnist for The Nation.

In a speech to colleagues not long ago, BBC News Economics Editor Robert Peston explained that while “some of [his] best friends are in PR,” nevertheless he has “never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy.”

The conflict seems clear. The task of the journalist is “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor,” to borrow from the goal set forth for The New York Times after Arthur Ochs purchased it in 1896. Public relations is the business, in the words of a pioneer in the field, U.S. government propagandist Edward Bernays, of the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.”

Equally clear today is who’s winning: America now enjoys the services of 4.6 public relations specialists for each reporter it employs, up from a margin of 3.2 to 1 in 2004 and 1.2 to 1 in 1980, as reported by Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in the PR world of 22.5 percent between 2010 and 2020. Meanwhile genuine journalism is shrinking faster than the polar ice cap: The Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project estimates that the number of people working in newspapers—where the lion’s share of responsible reporting has traditionally been done—has fallen to about half of what it was during its peak in the 1980s.

While no one will be surprised that a journalist finds this troubling, the shift has real and significant consequences for public welfare and the right to know. Imagine if the story of the Deepwater Horizon spill had been controlled by BP or Halliburton. Or if TransCanada or the State Department—which, The New York Times reported, hired a company with ties to TransCanada to assess the environmental impact of its proposed Keystone XL pipeline—controlled that story.

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been complicated. Yes, PR agents seek to manipulate journalists. That’s their job. “Free media”—a news story that represents a positive point of view or story line—is incalculably more valuable to any product or cause than “paid media,” that is, a paid advertisement (to say nothing of much cheaper). Despite the professed distaste of people like Peston, journalists in many fields would be hard-pressed to do their jobs without PR agents. They depend on them just as politicians depend on lobbyists to tell them how to vote on complicated legislation. For a PR agent to be effective, he or she needs to know how to sell the client with information that will not embarrass the journalist who uses it. It may not be “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but it had better be “true enough.” 

This dance requires prudence and diligence on the part of the journalist. In pursuing her craft, the journalist is taught to weigh competing claims, factor in various interests, consult outside voices, and give expertise its due. Naturally, she is going to be biased toward those who know best how to play that game, and those with the resources to hire PR firms are going to see their points of view represented in the news more than will those without. In the past, everyone understood the rules, and conscientious journalists sought to compensate for the advantages enjoyed by the powerful and well connected by seeking out unrepresented voices. As Peston nostalgically noted, “The rules of engagement, and the battle lines, were clear.” (Although even he felt forced, mid-rant, to admit that he, too, “had quite a few great stories from PRs.”)

Today the balance looks to be yet another historical artifact of a far healthier media ecosystem. The causes are many, but they all point in the direction of a significant shift in power away from honest journalism and toward media manipulation, a world in which the source of any given “content” is considered less important than the number of clicks it generates.

More than a few ex-journalists, like thousands of their former colleagues, will end up doing the jobs of those they once despised—at PR firms. Nicholas Lemann, dean emeritus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said, “The real problem in the world is the decreasing number of employed journalists.” Those folks may be sad about being forced out of a profession they have loved and respected into one to which they have felt morally and intellectually superior, but they can at least expect a raise. Based on 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by Pew, journalists now earn, on average, just 65 percent of the median income in the PR business. Given the numbers involved ($35,600 versus $54,940 per annum), it’s easy to see why many young people who aspired to careers in journalism are migrating across the border to what was once considered the dark side.

As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases.

Robert McChesney and John Nichols, 'The Death and Life of American Journalism'

According to Susanne Shaw, a professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and executive director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, “Public relations is the choice of 60 to 65 percent of the students today in schools of journalism and mass communications, though the journalism schools that teach it tend to refer to as ‘strategic communications,’ which combines advertising and public relations.” It’s been Shaw’s experience that many students begin college hoping to be newspersons, but when they see what their prospects are, they make a switch, often in their first semester. As McChesney and Nichols noted, “As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases.”

This is true no matter how great the scale of the story. A Pew report on 2012 presidential election coverage, for instance, documented how journalists in that campaign often functioned as megaphones for political partisans, relaying assertions rather than contextualizing them. Noting a “sharp rise in the influence of partisan voices, spin doctors and surrogates in shaping what the public is told about the biography and the character of the candidates,” the report connected that phenomenon to the “diminishing reportorial resources in newsrooms.”

As journalism grows ever weaker financially—combined print and digital advertising revenues tumbled 55 percent from 2003 to 2013, according to the Newspaper Association of America—and the investments made by PR firms are increasingly able to dwarf those of journalistic entities even in areas like reporting and production capabilities, lines that were once considered unthinkable to cross grow hazier. Television programs and websites are willing to use ready-made video reports by both government and private companies without labeling them as such. To cite just one example, reported by The New York Times, “Video news releases distributed by the [White House] Office of National Drug Control Policy…were shown on 300 stations and reached 22 million households.”

Technology is also tilting the balance toward unfiltered corporate communications over objective reporting. Advertising and public relations companies can now reach the public outside the old-fashioned journalistic channels, via YouTube and other social media. They have invested so much money in these productions that their “reports” often have better production values than those of even the most prestigious news organizations. Columbia Journalism Review in 2009 told the story of former CNN journalist Gene Randall, who was hired by Chevron, the third-largest corporation in America, to create a report on its controversial actions in Ecuador to offset a forthcoming PR disaster in the form of a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes. As CJR noted, the report, posted to YouTube and Chevron’s website ahead of the CBS broadcast, “included only Chevron officials and consultants.” Everyone interviewed in Randall’s report was on Chevron’s payroll, including most especially its anchor. Randall rationalized his actions: “I don’t portray it as a piece of journalism, but I used journalistic techniques in telling Chevron’s side of the story,” he told National Journal. Indeed, the idea of ignoring evidence that would undoubtedly affect a reader’s or viewer’s perception of a story strikes one as the opposite of honest professional journalism. Moreover, the video looked just like a typical television news magazine report and never identified itself as anything but that, or disclosed who had paid for it. 

Public relations is the choice of 60 to 65 percent of the students today in schools of journalism and mass communications.

Susanne Shaw, executive director, Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications

This is not so unusual: A study published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that surveyed news organizations found that while airing such videos is increasing, rarely if ever is the information they contain verified before it is presented to viewers. 

Public relations fronting as journalism is a practice that is almost certainly in its infancy; the amount of money spent on PR more than doubled between 1997 and 2007 and continues to grow across platforms.

At the same time that the PR industry is imitating journalism, it is also successfully infiltrating it. Among the most popular techniques designed to sow confusion about the origins of a message has been the adoption of the “advertorial” in newspapers and magazines, often called “sponsored content” on the Web. These campaigns are designed in-house by publications—often using their own employees—to create PR/propaganda that resembles a regular news story or an editorial but toes the line of the client. Publications that do not participate in the creation of these products are now rarer than those that do. According to Meredith Kopit Levien, executive vice president of advertising for The New York Times, speaking to Financial Times, “We’re still in the very early days of the branded content business.” Its first client was Shell Oil. Perhaps more depressing is that while the Times recently reduced the size of its newsroom by more than 100 reporters and editors, it is staffing up its “content studio” at every level. As Times spokeswoman Linda Zebian told Capital New York, following 40 such campaigns in 2014, the division is “ramping up our headcount in every way." Similar efforts are under way at the venerable Condé Nast, which recently announced that its “branded content” would involve not just the company’s corporate and sales staffs but also the editors of its various magazines. 

It feels like an awfully long time ago, but it was only last year that many journalists reacted with horror when Time Inc. announced that editors would henceforth report to the business side, tearing down the once inviolable firewall between business and editorial. Today the undisputed leaders in the business of journalism are youth-oriented news outlets such as Vice and BuzzFeed, which act as if such a wall, if it ever existed, has gone the way of the original Pink Floyd lineup. In these publications, it can sometimes be difficult to see where the news content ends and the sponsored content begins. (BuzzFeed recently updated its editorial standards.) Neither is it so obvious which business holds precedence. Vice News associate editor Charles Davis lost his job when he complained in public (and posted evidence in the form of emails) that his article had been killed because Vice editors were concerned with the possibility that it might interfere with the agenda of a potential sponsor of such articles. (Not a current sponsor, mind you, but a potential one.) He was “reminded” that “any ‘brand’ mention—basically any mention of a large entity that we might be making some kind of business deal with—should get run up the flagpole” before it was published. At BuzzFeed, advertorials are big business. Jonah Peretti, the site’s founder, told The Guardian that almost all its considerable revenue is built around the model of shareable advertorials that the site’s editors create with the hope of their going viral. It’s hard to know just how many of the millions of people who click on and share this content across Facebook and Twitter—both of which BuzzFeed works with to customize its content—have any idea they are reading sponsored material, or what might otherwise be called PR. 

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Pew recently undertook to scrutinize the composition of 52 news stories published in Baltimore during a single seven-day period in July 2009 and discovered that fully 84 percent of the reporting could be traced to PR pitches, either from the government (62 percent), citizens (12 percent), or educational institutions (10 percent). Just 15 percent of these stories began with an individual initiative. Of course, the proof is in the proverbial pudding. It’s not important where a story idea began, so long as its execution is—to use a once honorable and useful description—“fair” and “balanced.” In a world where ever more sophisticated public relations practices threaten to overwhelm what remains of honest journalistic institutions in terms of both money and numbers, we may be about to discover what it means to live with a constant information stream that is neither. 

CORRECTION [March 18, 2015]: A previously published version of this article stated Bernays's name as Edmund. TakePart regrets the error. 

This article is the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of TakePart or its parent company, Participant Media. 

This article was created in partnership with TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Merchants of Doubt.

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