Is PR the new partisan press?

Last fall I was helping a political newcomer with her campaign’s media relations, and it came time to warn her of PR’s limitations. I tried to explain that the press release I had written for her would not be reprinted in the local newspaper, but hopefully paraphrased to the extent that her views would be heard.

I ended up proving myself wrong when the newspaper printed quotes from the press release verbatim, without even calling her for a follow up. So much for my cautious view of PR’s power over print.

This is exactly the type of situation that would make Robert McChesney, a media critic and scholar whose book I’m now digesting for class, cringe with disgust. Or maybe he would just shake his head with acceptance. McChesney frequently makes the point that the PR industry has an ever-growing sphere of influence over what “objective” media report as news these days. The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. In a televised interview on PBS, McChesney points out that in the 1960s there was roughly the same number of PR professionals and  journalists in the workforce. But now there’s a 3-1 ratio in favor of PR.

This statement left my classmates debating whether the papers they had worked/interned for would ever resort to the practice of printing press releases. The views were mixed.

Practices are mixed as well. The half-dozen community papers I’ve worked/interned for during the past decade would never quote a press release for a major story, but for briefs and featurey pages the prepared statement sometimes came through unfiltered. Other times the press release got a rewrite, but the content and message remained unchanged.

The more and more newsroom staffs are decimated by layoffs, the more frequent this practice will become. If a staff is going to produce some meaningful stories — or even just a fully filled edition — on a shoestring budget with declining manpower, that often means resorting to PR for the minor stuff. Ideally all media outlets would print only staff-written copy, but the economics of the industry today force these companies to cut staff or fall into the red.

Is this the end of objective, unbiased journalism? Perhaps. But it’s also a great opportunity for worthy causes to get their message out directly to the public, provided that they’re willing to create content. There’s a void right now that honest, engaging PR can fill. A non-profit can’t always find a reporter to tell its story anymore, but if it figures out how to tell the story on its own, there are outlets to find an audience.

This concept goes against the modern-day standards of the unbiased news outlets. But that model is quickly falling away, both because it now struggles to turn a profit and because most readers still see journalism as biased anyway. It’s worth noting that the news industry began in this country using a highly partisan model, where papers printed information with a specific agenda. McChesney even praises this model in his book, talking about how the multitude of strong views ensured that those in power would always be challenged somewhere.

Could a news industry where PR has a prominent place mark a return to the partisan model? Hopefully the arguments and agendas will be carried out with more civility and honesty than they did circa 1800, but we shouldn’t automatically fear journalism with an agenda. What matters in the end is that every voice — be it through a reporter or through PR — still gets heard.

    • kreitman
    • February 15th, 2010

    I really like your take on this subject. You now have experience and insight from both sides, PR and journalism to be able to weigh and discuss the benefits and negatives of both parties. I think it is still necessary for news organizations to follow up with most press releases and write their own story by asking questions about the material in the release. But, sadly you are right int he fact that some organizations jut simply can;t practice that method all the time anymore because of strapped budgets and dwindling staffs.

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