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September 25, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Selling News To The Newsmen

As New Zealand’s media turns into a trench for a public relations war between National and Labour, it seems that for the time being the media, are not acting entirely in the public interest. With more and more journalists heading into public relations, SALIENT Editor James Robinson examines the line between journalists and their public relations counterparts. How free is our own press from manipulation?

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote about journalism that “it’s not a profession or a trade. It’s a cheap catch-all for fuck-offs and misfits. A false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole, nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo cage.” An extreme sentiment, but judging by the news recently you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was right. The two major political parties slugging it out, trading filth and the media gleefully reporting every low blow, all under the guise of the ‘we are normally so far above this, but we felt that you should know…’ If it’s not Don Brash’s affairs, it’s Helen Clark’s husband. But take a step back and look at it, and you’ll see that the media, in sinking down to this level, has given up the (often debatable) idea that they are acting within the public interest. What use does it serve us? Do we need to know this?

The short answer is no, we don’t. And it does no good for Jo Public, because as meaningful and affecting stories are pushed further back in the magazine, the press is acting more and more as a means for the politicians to trade body shots. The only people that gain from the news recently are politicians, as they enact their own, very aggressive public relations campaigns. Newspapers have been dripping recently with the calling cards of the influences of the each party’s public relations departments. The line blurs, and one needs to ask, just how independent are journalists from the public relations sector?

The confusing relationship between traditional journalism and public relations is illustrated best by Alistair Campbell. Campbell rose from being Political Editor for the Daily Mirror in 1996, to Tony Blair’s media spokesperson in 1997, and then to the lofty heights of Director of Communications and Strategy by 2001. As such, he was given the power to place directives to civil servants that previously answered only to ministers.

Influence over the media of this kind was previously unheard of. He controlled the system where a select group of journalists had privileged access to the Prime Minister, access that in turn provided the select group of journalists with a high level of personal kudos. But Campbell was notorious for intervening personally and complaining about stories that displeased him. In the 1997 election campaign, Campbell attacked several journalists publicly.

The Hutton Enquiry into the BBC story that Campbell and the Blair administration had “sexed” up the dossier of intelligence information on Iraq to win public support for the war, condemned the BBC, but wasn’t quite able to exonerate Campbell in the minds of many. Campbell is shown to have made over 40 personal phone calls directly to the BBC to comment on their war reporting. Most of this is fact, and some of it’s slight conspiracy, but all of it adds up to a weakening integrity of the division between ‘marketers’ and ‘reporters’.

Karl Rove, Campbell’s American equivalent, is widely rumoured to have had a hand in story that John McCain had an illegitmate black child (through random push polls asking “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered illegitimate black children?”) during the 2000 Republican primaries, and the famous Swift Boat campaign that discredited John Kerry’s war credentials. Both stories were discredited, but not before they gained significant media coverage and threatened to derail the eventually unsuccessful campaigns of Kerry and McCain. The editor of the Boston Globe, Doug Most reacted disgustedly at the Swift Boat coverage, saying that: “the story got weeks of coverage and nothing checked out. Nothing. Forty years ago, stories like this were thrown in the bin, but now it’s not news that makes headlines, it’s the prospect of news.” And it’s a noble sentiment, but he can’t hide from the fact that media is no longer independent from those with a vested interest in how the news should read.

But let’s pull it back from the flighty realms of conspiracy, political manipulation and treachery. Let’s step into the lowly Salient newsroom. As an Editor I receive about forty press releases a day, and two or three public relations officers will follow up on these, imploring me to feature their product, plug their website and so on. It’s all fairly benign, but there’s a direct link between the people who write the news and the people who are trying to influence what you write about. Mostly it’s harmless, but when you’re offered some things for free, there becomes an added element of guilt when you turn around and bag a product, or don’t cover it. Some record companies will give you a year-long cold shoulder for a negative review of their products. After Salient didn’t cover the triumphant appearance of the Xbox bus in town, the new Xbox 360 was unavailable for Salient to review. It’s a harmless service of information in many regards, but the influence of the public relations sector is always present, even at the lower end, do-it-yourself parts of the media.

Talking to Verica Rupar, a Media Studies and Journalism lecturer here at Victoria University, who has extensive history as a journalist and spent time as a press officer for the Green Party, she tells me that this blurring of the line between the public relations and journalism professions is not new. “In 1920, when the American Journalism Association drew up its first code of ethics, public relations people wanted to be included in the organisation, saying that they were doing the same thing. But the journalists didn’t allow it back then. Now the lines are blurred again.”

Rupar points at a situation where newsrooms don’t have a strong system of defense against outside interests. “Newsrooms are frequently understaffed and underresourced and can be manipulated…” Rupar says that when you boil public relations down to its essence, it is to “extract facts that are favourable for your side, and facts that are unfavourable for the other side.” There is no strict set of expectations, and when you look at the use of seemingly ‘credible’ scientists in press releases for organisations such as those who oppose the environmental lobbyists, the need for stronger defense systems becomes apparent. Often this supposed ‘science’ crosses over into news stories. Journalists, Rupar says, often have “no time, money, or equipment, and on the other side you have such power and resource.”

“Press releases are not just a trigger or idea for a story any more, but are now being used more and more as a readily formed text. And this use of press release says a lot about the influence of public relations.”
Verica Rupar

But public relations officers play the game well, and the situation becomes even more blurry and confusing when it is taken into account that a significant amount of exjournalists are now in public relations, and a significant amount of those with journalism training go into public relations. “Press releases are not just a trigger or idea for a story any more, but are now being used more and more as a readily formed text. And this use of press release says a lot about the influence of public relations. The background of many of the public relations officers is how they know how to compose a text that journalists can use and rely on in everyday work.”

“When I was working as a press officer, I had a young colleague who worked at a major newspaper for $28,000 a year. He went into the public service and got $35,000, then found a job in a public relations firm and got $80,000 a year. Who would go to a newsroom if they had that option? Newsrooms are under-resourced and under-staffed. A few journalists have to cover a number of stories, they don’t have time to investigate, [to] interview, [and] to observe, if they have to write five stories a day. It’s why real journalists do accept press releases.”

It creates a situation where the rules of old no longer apply, because the game has changed and old codes are outdated. And the public is affected greatly, because the reporting process is different. “You had a journalism profession that was mediating between reality and the people, but now you have another class of people in that process of mediation, and they are the public relations officers.” Academics have referred to them in the past as “parajournalists”, because they mediate reality, like journalists, “but not in a straight forward way.” I spoke to a young journalist (who wished to remain anonymous), a few years out of journalism school and working in a major New Zealand newspaper, and he echoed many of Rupar’s sentiments. “The trend in newspapers, and this is a consequence of the system, is downsizing. The fat cats who control the strings invariably demand a quality product from as few resources as possible. That’s what maximises profit. The Herald used to have in excess of forty news reporters; now there are less than twenty.” This profit drive, and the overall of commodification of your daily newspaper eats slowly into quality. “The bulk of revenue comes from advertising, not the quality of editorial content. This means that, though not negligible, the articles are not as important to the big-dogs upstairs as the full-page New World ad on page five. As long as there is advertising, profit will be made. And all the slimming-down demands are on editorial, or editorial resources.”

“The quality of the articles should drive the readership, which then fuels the advertising demand. But this is not the case, as various newspapers are unchallenged in various regions, meaning the demand for advertising is less dependent on editorial quality.”
Journalist

The Herald lost three reporters last year, and with them decades of experience, and their rounds were replaced by reporters who, though capable, were young and cheaper alternatives. The quality of the articles should drive the readership, which then fuels the advertising demand. But this is not the case, as various newspapers are unchallenged in various regions, meaning the demand for advertising is less dependent on editorial quality.”

But there is an obvious feeling of resistance against the public relations profession. “Even PR for the good guys is still selling shit. I’d rather be a journalist writing about the important issues than be a PR man trying to sell them.” But the option is always there, even early in the career. This person points at what he describes as one of the most talented news journalists in his class and the fact they soon left their first job for a media relations post. Right across the board the consensus is simple. The money is better.

I enquire about the prevalence of copy and paste usage of press releases and I am told that journalism by press release does occur, but only when the news value of a story is minimal, or the time constraints are very serious. But it’s still always there, and press releases are a big part of journalism now. “[Press releases] are important to alerting news media about things that may be happening, but it is important to remember that every press release has an agenda and may be hiding something much darker and deeper. Filtering through the crap and asking the real questions is an important skill.” I was slightly alarmed to find out that with the Taser staging that made the front page of the Dominion Post, with officers falling down on thick rubber mats, that It emerged later “through an official information act request, that three officers had been injured after being Tasered as part of their training, which all happened in such a controlled environment.”

My next interviewee, again wished to remain anonymous, but is a current public relations officer with more than twenty years dailynews journalism experience. Again Rupar’s sentiments are echoed, but, he was much less affected by New Zealand’s environment as he spent much of his career in journalism working overseas. “I remember working out the exchange rate and realising I was paid more than the NZ Prime Minister back in the early 90s, and I was just a sports hack at the time.”

“The type of media placement I do is much easier here in New Zealand than it would be in the United Kingdom and elsewhere because our media are underresourced, have pages to fill, or airtime to fill, and will snap something up if it is packaged the right way.”
Public Relations Officer

The insights of someone with an extensive track record in both fields is interesting, and the state of New Zealand journalism again comes across very negatively. “The type of media placement I do is much easier here in New Zealand than it would be in the United Kingdom and elsewhere because our media are underresourced, have pages to fill, or airtime to fill, and will snap something up if it is packaged the right way.”

Our pool of journalists has become smaller and weakened, journalists get picked off, and some of the less talented individuals rise to the top. “I do believe that journalists in NZ are underpaid and underresourced, and that drives many of the most talented and ambitious out of journalism into related fields such as PR. You only need to consider the average age of our so-called political editors on TV and with the major dailys as an example. Many weren’t even reporting politics the last time we had a change of Government! The experienced ones are snapped up as highly paid lobbyists and advisors.”

“Some very talented journalists do remain in the profession, of course. But equally I believe many mediocre individuals rise to positions of editor and management simply because of their length of service and willingness to toe the company line no matter what. That means newspaper senior management have a much smaller pool of talent from which to appoint editors, and they almost never appoint outsiders.”

However there is a twist to one of the commonly held ideas. Not all journalists make amazing public relations officers. “Being a former journalist definitely helps. But it still takes a certain type of personality to talk the talk. You’re really one-third media expert, onethird salesman and one-third evangelist for whatever it is you’re flogging.”

So next time you pick up your newspaper, and negotiate your way through a process of news, opinion and feature, spare a thought for the over-worked and under-resourced. Also spare a thought for the intricate process of mediation that it represents. Your news is no longer free from bias. Your newspaper comes to you with an intricate process of manipulations and slants. It’s easy sometimes not to feel good about the New Zealand media, especially the daily newspaper. Recently, it’s been very easy. The lines between journalism and public relations are increasingly difficult to spot. Old journalism practices don’t seem to hold up any more, especially in New Zealand where our newsrooms are often slightly desperate for what the public relations sector can offer in terms of ‘content’. I put the question to the journalist turned public relations officer. Have the lines blurred?“That’s the million dollar question. But what is journalism, given the myriad forms of new media, Joe-Public-as observer-and recorderof- world-events, blogs, podcasts … what we traditionally viewed as ‘news’ served by ‘journalists’ is much more difficult to define.” How we get our information is changing, and as things stand, many traditional outlets risk being left behind if they do not again adopt a distinctive voice, and offer the level of insight and honesty they sometimes neglect to provide.

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About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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