Friday, April 11, 2008

Blurred Indeed

Grand Rapids Press reporter Chris Knape had an interesting post on his Knape's Corner blog earlier this week about the lines between the news media and PR becoming more blurry. His post is based on the revelation that the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority is paying online magazine Rapid Growth Media to include content about DDA projects--effectively buying coverage.

Knape points out that the trouble comes when Rapid Growth does not make clear when the stories are objective journalism or paid content. This is blurry indeed. The various search engines such as Google and Yahoo learned early on that making a distinction between paid search results and natural search results was a key consumer demand. Buying content in a publication also gives me a chill as I think of the practice in some countries, where PR people regularly "bribe" journalists in order to get coverage. In those contexts, it is not seen as unethical; it's more on the order of tipping the doorman, simple business practice. This kind of ethical relativism in global PR is causing problems for the International Public Relations Association as it seeks to create a global code of ethics for the profession.

But back to West Michigan. Is the DDA-Rapid Growth contract a bad thing? Is it all that new?

If you look at Rapid Growth carefully, they have a mix of repurposed news media articles, news releases or other corporate content, and its own reporting. If they want to be considered a traditional journalistic outlet, this may be problematic. Where is the difference between news and opinion? Reporting and PR subsidized content?

But wait! Traditional newspapers have carried both news and opinion for years. And the lines here are blurring as well. What is the difference between an op-ed or column and a 'news analysis' article placed among the news articles? What's the difference between a column and a blog--they are organized separately on MLive. Is a blog reporting or opinion? Is there not some blurring between articles and blogs? And what are we to make of it when a reporter blogs about the same subject upon which he has reported?

That's happened in this case. Knape blogged about this DDA-Rapid Growth tidbit on Tuesday, to be followed by an article on the front of the business section on the same subject yesterday. Does this damage the credibility of the newspaper? Can articles by reporters who blog about the same subjects be seen as objective? It's another line blurred.

Personally, I think Knape is right--the public should know whether content is the result of an objective journalistic endeavor or paid content. We have had 'advertorials' for years, and the convention has always been to label them as such. No matter what changes and trends emerge in new media, both the journalism and the PR professions need to continue to attribute the source and be transparent about our objectives.


Anonymous said...

What I find even more troubling is the fact that a no-bid $50,000 contract was awarded to a DDA Board Member who happens to own the company that produces the RapidGrowth site. While the paper took pains to tell us this Board Member refrained from voting, isn't this a clear conflict of interest? And aren't there rules about Board Members profiting from Board-related activities? If there are no rules, there should be! At least put it out for bids, people!

Tim Penning, APR said...

True. There is a clear conflict of interest. But I still think that point becomes moot when you ask why the DDA would pay for content? Why not supply news releases, or share the info in their own Web site and/or newsletter? PR content from a reputable organization is as credible as journalistic content in the eyes of many people.

Anonymous said...

What part of the general population understands the difference between journalism and PR? A small percentage, I think. It's incredible how many clients think we can pay to get them on the front page of the local paper.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness some of our local media still recognize their responsibility to be journalists and not just publish or chat about the latest "study" or "innovation" -- which usually are nothing more than regurgitated press releases.

The news business has gotten fat, lazy and stupid in many cases -- relying on a steady diet of spoon-fed tripe. Combine that with the average young reporter's penchant for social liberalism and it's a dangerous combination.

The DDA's move here is a weak attempt to "control the news" rather than to attempt to influence the public with "real news", advertising and other marketing efforts. It's lazy and expensive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim...just a quick clarification/different point of view on this statement in your blog:
"Buying content in a publication also gives me a chill as I think of the practice in some countries, where PR people regularly "bribe" journalists in order to get coverage. In those contexts, it is not seen as unethical; it's more on the order of tipping the doorman, simple business practice."
I kindly disagree. It is oftent the media in other countries (especially Europe!) who force PR people to "pay to play". I can tell you how many times during multiple overseas press tours where I was asked "If you will place an advertisement here...I will give you a 3 page write-up on your product" etc. I don't believe its the PR person's fault for a "blurred" line taken by the editor.

Tim Penning, APR said...

Well, technically I don't think you actually disagree. It's why I put "bribe" in quotes and made the doorman reference. It's expected practice, but to an American PR pro it is difficult. You can say "when in Rome" but still not feel right about it. It's what ethicists call "Mannheim's paradox"--if it's unethical in your culture, but it's not unethical in another culture, and you do it, are you ethical?

The trouble is if that line is crossed here in the states.

By the way--it'd be nice if you all would sign your names so readers know who's offering commentary besides "anonymous."

Anonymous said...

There would be a definite conflict of interest if RAPID GROWTH were actually an "objective news outlet."

But the purpose behind RAPID GROWTH is to report on positive economic and cultural developments in West Michigan, to provide a source of "good news" about developments and happenings in the area, etc.

I like what they are doing because it's encouraging. But it's certainly not objective.

I heard a presentation given by the publisher of RAPID GROWTH, during which she said that the purpose of the publication is to provide a source of positive and encouraging narratives about West Michigan. That is almost an exact quote -- certainly the narratives part is.

RAPID GROWTH is also licensing their content to sites like THE RIGHT PLACE and the KENT COUNTY VISITORS BUREAU as "feeds" on their websites. See for example:

Because of this, you need to look at RAPID GROWTH as a kind of benign PR agency for West Michigan.

-- Raymond