Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'Churnalism', 'Information Subsidy,' or Good PR?

Stop the presses--journalists are using press releases. It's happening from GR to the UK, from citizen journalism to mainstream media (which is also, ironically, practiced by citizens).

Fellow Grand Rapids PR practitioner and blogger Derek DeVries pointed out on his Imprudent Loquaciousness blog that hyper local citizen journalism site The Rapidian had done a complete copy and paste of a news release about local banker Jim Dunlap receiving an award. But this may not be about unprofessionalism of citizen journalists: the Grand Rapids Press ran an article largely spoon fed by the same release.

DeVries points out that if someone is going to copy and paste from a news release, at least they could eliminate the hastags (###) that indicate the end of a news release so the "article" looks legitimate. In the case of the Rapidian, the Center for Community Leadership is clearly identified as the source of the article and is registered on the Rapidian site as a nonprofit. At least they are somewhat transparent about the source.

As for the Press and other media, the issue seems to be whether or not it's ok for journalists to run news releases verbatim. In the UK this has recently been called "churnalism," based on the notion that PR pros churn out press releases and feed the media. There is even a web site by that name that allows people to paste text from a news release and compare it with articles in British newspapers and the BBC.

What's interesting about this "issue" is that it indicts both journalists and PR pros. Journalists for being lazy and unsceptical tools; PR pros for taking advantage of and manipulating the media.

But I have a couple of other thoughts about this--this is neither new nor terrible.

It's not new because way back in 1982 Oscar Gandy wrote a book "Beyond Agenda Setting" in which he introduced the concept of "information subsidy," which basically describes the reality that journalists can't always meet the burden of information gathering so they accept information in the form of press releases and other materials from public relations professionals. Obviously, there is potential for harm since the "subsidizers" are not always objective.

But PR professionals are not necessarily manipulative either. In fact, if a news release is run verbatim it may not indicate a lazy journalist, but rather a good PR professional who wrote objective facts in appropriate news style. Just because copy is not changed does not mean it is not verified.

Also, PR professionals seem to be damned if  they do and if they don't. People complain about unethical influence on the news if we offer news releases, but if governments and businesses say nothing we are chided for being unresponsive to the public's right to know.

I know from my experience as a practitioner and research as a professor that often people turn to news releases instead of mainstream media for information. They are reasonably confident in their ability to tell fact from bluster and genuine news from sensationalism.

So instead of laying blame on a simple communication tactic, the news release, or vilifying the entire profession of public relations, we should let truth be the guide. There are plenty of good journalists and PR pros who honestly want to serve the public good with accurate information. The bad eggs will be found out. As John Milton wrote in 1644 when fighting government censorship in the Aereopagitica: "Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever  knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

1 comment:

Derek said...

Excellent, substantive discussion.