By Judah Martin
I would hesitate to call myself a practicing journalist. In fact, I think such a claim would be patently wrong.
In the years that I have worked as a student writer for The University of Alabama’s engineering college, I have written news releases, research articles, award announcements and “In Memorium” obituaries for engineering alumni who were generous enough to donate to the college. On more than one occasion, I have flipped open one of our now tabloid-sized editions of the Crimson White to see one of my news releases copied nearly word-for-word by an up-and-coming reporter. In the world of public relations, this is precisely the coverage we want. It means that whatever entity we are representing is depicted to the public exactly as we had intended.
In the low-stakes world of UA inter-university communications, little consequence arises from a reporter copying and pasting a description of this or that professor’s research interests. However, this tendency hints at what I think is a larger issue among professional journalists. Various politicians, celebrities and corporations can pedal their agendas across media platforms and I worry that, aside from in an occasional Atlantic or Jezebel think-piece, many reporters seldom challenge the narratives that are fed to them.
I would wager that the chief catalyst driving this disturbing trend is the advent of online journalism and social media. Such powerhouses demand content, sometimes daily, sometimes nearly constantly. The unfortunate reality is that journalists come to rely more and more on public relations professionals to satisfy that need for content and, arguably, the quality of their journalism is suffering.
There is no evidence that journalism’s enabling relationship with the world of public relations will be ending any time soon. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the public relations job market is growing at a substantially higher rate than the market for journalists. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 22.5 percent growth in PR jobs, as traditional journalism jobs continue shrinking. More and more, journalists are relying on PR professionals for story ideas.
In these precarious times, journalists should cling more closely to their codes of ethics than ever. Take, for example, the TARES test, which calls for:
“Truthfulness of the claims made by the persuader.
Authenticity of the persuader- integrity, virtue, sincerity, loyalty, independence.
Respect for the ‘persuadee’s’ dignity/rights/interests/autonomy.
Equity of the persuasive appeal- fairness/justice/parity of the persuasion ‘playing field.’
Social responsibility for the wider public interest or public good rather than self-interest.
Ironically, this is a model popular among advertisers and PR professionals, but the values represented in the model can also be useful for the journalists who are relying on them for stories. Specifically, journalists should be always striving to uphold the dignity of the reader in their reporting process, because the quotes and the information that they include in their stories will ultimately determine their credibility. When reporters rely on news releases and official quotes to shape their stories they risk insulting the intelligence of their readers and, ultimately, they allow journalism to take a backseat to the expanding PR field.
Alderman, Eric, “How P.R. is Killing Journalism” http://www.takepart.com/feature/2015/02/13/pr-jobs-journalism-jobs
Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2-3), 148-175.
Black, J., & Roberts, C. (2011). Doing Ethics In Media: Theories and Practical Applications. New York: Routledge.