Democratic Media Reform
"The Search for a Purveyor of News: The Dewey/Lippman Debate in an Internet Age." By Nathan Crick. In Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol 26, issue 5, pp 480-497.
Public relations and the concept of public opinion really took off in the 1920s. In that decade John Dewey and Walter Lippman debated, in several books, what the best form of journalism should be to ensure that democracy has an informed and engaged public. Essentially, Dewey envisioned an interactive process in which matters of public interest are discussed by journalists, artists, and citizens (which sounds like what is emerging today with citizen journalism, blogs, and other Internet platforms that empower citizens to participate in "media"). Lippman worried that the public was not really capable of civic debate without "professional" or "elite" journalists first offering objective information, which the public can then discuss (not far from a criticism today that the Internet is more cacophony of opinion and a fragmented public than democratic information discussed by a common public). Meanwhile, Edward Bernays, a public relations pioneer, argued that the public is best informed by allowing "competing propaganda campaigns." So, even when radio was "new media," there were concerns about making sure that public information was, in the author's words, "more than a tool for corporate profit and individual expression, but also a domain of cooperative public inquiry." That same concern exists today with regard to the Internet. Back then, as now, the idea of using public resources to enable a democratic public was proposed as an alternative to a free "marketplace of ideas." What do you think?
Public Reaction to Video News Releases (VNRs)
Two articles in the fall (volume 24, number 4) edition of Journal of Mass Media Ethics address the public's reaction to video news releases. In "Tragedies of the Broadcast Commons: Consumer Perspectives on the Ethics of Product Placement and Video News Releases," the authors found that consumers who accept of product placements in entertainment programming are more likely to accept video news releases in broadcast news. Meanwhile, consumers have little confidence in the government or marketers "protecting" consumers from "marketing excesses" and tend to see themselves as having the savvy to discern marketing techniques in media.
While an interesting study, I was bothered by the authors alternately labeling VNRs as public relations, marketing, and advertising. They also oddly refer to "the reported on doing the reporting" as "the essence of PR." No. The essence of PR is relationship building, and when most PR professionals do the media relations this article addresses, they most often do so by providing information and expecting reporters to do their jobs. If VNRs are not attributed, that is the fault of TV news directors.
A second article, "Increased Persuasion Knowledge of Video News Releases: Audience Beliefs About News and Support for Source Disclosure," showed that when people are informed about what VNRs are and the source of a VNR is disclosed, they are more likely to believe: a) that VNRs are 'commercializing news' ; b) VNRs without disclosure are unethical; c) news organizations should voluntarily disclose the source of VNRs; and d) government should regulate VNRs.
Again, I'm all in favor of ethical practice of public relations and broadcast journalism. But this study seems to exemplify "priming"--i.e. giving people an attitude of VNRs that may have likely been negative will understandably produce negative opinions about them. Were I to give the same group my view of VNRs as properly produced public information tailored for the television medium, they may see them differently. The public also complains when companies and other organizations offer too little information to meet their civic and consumer interests. Also, if broadcast journalists practiced fundamental source attribution, VNRs would not be an issue. What I tell my PR students is that TV stations are unlikely to run your 90-second VNR verbatim. It's best to provide hard to access interviews with executives and hard to obtain b-roll footage for stations to incorporate into their own independent reporting and story treatment.
The autumn issue (volume 83, issue 3) of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly is a special issue on "political knowledge." A summary of the results of some of the articles that are most relevant to PR:
- news releases were more effective in building an issue agenda (what is talked about in a political campaign) whereas ads were more effective in "second-level" agenda building (how those issues are framed or talked about);
- young people are more interested in politics now than in the past, but that interest was not reflected in the popular magazines they read;
- less than 15% of hyperlinks on political blogs were to primary sources; almost half were to mainstream media sources; therefore political blogs are equated with op-ed pages;
- when income increases, online news use decreases; in economic terms, online news is an "inferior good" and print newspapers are a "normal good", meaning a positive relationship between income and demand;