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The dark side of journalism

December 5, 2016

typewriter on fire

Photo: J.D. Lasica (CC)

A friend and former colleague wrote me the other day that he had “made peace” with joining the dark side. He was referring to public relations.

Many journalists have long looked down on PR, perhaps spurred by bad encounters with PR professionals over the years. While I understand, I don’t share that sentiment. I know plenty of terrific PR experts and have found stories and ideas I would not have otherwise discovered. I’ve done my fair share of PR work and have advised clients on PR strategy time and again.

What’s rarely discussed is that journalism has a dark side, too. We’ve seen it many times this year.

Certainly, journalists have faced detractors from all corners with claims of biased reporting, ethical misconduct and sensationalism. The dark side of journalism should include five areas that damage the industry needlessly.

The first area is “pay-for-play,” when a media outlet expects businesses seeking coverage to pay up front for ads. Most might recognize it by a standard term: extortion. Owners and marketers often don’t realize that this is an unethical practice and not the industry norm. However, in limited media markets (such as Birmingham), we may not have many options beyond the outlet seeking payment.

Avoid pay-for-play at all costs. Patronize media outlets that keep their business interests and journalistic pursuits separate. Hire a professional or an agency to assist in obtaining earned media coverage.

The second area is media release journalism. I’ve seen it both traditional outlets and online outfits. With newsroom resources stretched beyond capacity, reporters and producers take shortcuts. One of the most egregious is taking media releases and using them virtually unchanged for print, online and on air.

For a PR pro, it’s a huge easy win: It puts the client’s message directly before the outlet’s audience without a filter but with the appearance of credibility. In the long run, it harms everyone. Journalists lose credibility, audience members lose trust, and story subjects lose another option in reaching people.

We don’t have many options to discourage this practice, other than to reward media outlets that avoid it with our clicks, our subscription dollars and our patronage of their advertisers.

The third area is a lack of innovation. The industry has been largely static, whether print, broadcast or this “new” age of digital. Essentially, the click-revenue model is similar to the emphasis on big numbers that worked for decades: readership for print, viewers/listeners for broadcast.

Have we seen any innovations that have made good journalism more robust and more profitable? Some have even made the argument that journalism should be divorced from the for-profit model, though the nonprofit ventures of late have been a mixed bag.

The fourth area is a lack of transparency. We have important questions to ask of news organizations:

  • How are coverage decisions made?
  • How are they carried out?
  • When the budget is cut, what are the deciding factors?
  • Do audience members have a say in decisions? Subscribers? Advertisers? Non-newsroom employees?
  • What are the priorities in the newsroom? They could include speed, accuracy, potential metrics, cost, controversy, public service, brand alignment and so on.

A public that demands more of its media should expect more transparency than is currently and automatically offered. We want the same transparency from the media that the media asks of government, business and other institutions.

The fifth area is fake news. The first four areas have indirectly contributed to the fake news phenomenon. Any time established media outlets shoot themselves in their collective feet, it opens the door a little wider for the hucksters to slip through.

Fake news is extremely profitable and has repercussions far beyond which website, social media account or YouTube channel racks up the most hits.

I wish I had a clear-cut solution on the fake news problem. It’s largely insular: People either take refuge within a fake news bubble, or they don’t. Gentle persuasion, empathy and skillful storytelling are likely not enough to entice them out of that bubble.

We can continue to make sure children have access to free robust public education, free Internet access and libraries in every community. Development of critical thinking skills should become a top priority for educators and citizens across America.

Having worked in journalism for 25 years, I know well its power for good. But I also know how it has declined in certain ways throughout my career.

I believe great journalism is essential for a great democracy. Whether we deserve either remains to be seen.

More posts on journalism.

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