Jarrett (Jarrett Rush, director of content marketing): Political polarization. A president with a loose grasp of facts. A global pandemic. The Fox News vs. CNN/MSNBC divide. These are interesting times. Everything going on is creating some serious cultural shifts. Some are arguing that these shifts—things like the moves toward telemedicine and remote work—were things that were already coming. Our current climate just accelerated those changes.
One longstanding institution that's seemingly changing is journalism, and that evolution is what we want to chat about today. But before we dive into the nitty gritty, I'm curious from our cross-generational participants, what do you consider the role of journalism/news media in our society, and how have you seen that change since you entered the PR profession?
Alexis (Alexis Diehl, public relations manager): When I started doing PR in the mid-2000’s, there was generally no question about whether or not what the media said was true. We had already learned by that time that the internet was a crazy place, but a news site was different. Although I believe that top-tier outlets (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, etc.) are still very reputable/fair/unbiased, there are a growing number of people who certainly don’t feel the same (let’s say half the country).That said, we have to approach PR with a facts-first approach more than ever. We have to understand and respect the scrutiny reporters are under and adjust accordingly, armed with solid proof points, reputable SMEs, stats and more.
Katie (Katie Long, vice president of account service): It’s true. I think this just strengthens people’s desire for third-party validation now. I used to look to the media to stay generally informed, but I now also use it to find the truth. That’s why The New York Times’ “the truth is essential” ads appeal so much to me. They are simple, in black and white, and concise. I do find that I seek out stats and a variety of sources to validate “facts” now.
Liz (Liz Cies, vice president of public relations): From my perspective, the role of journalism/news media is to provide timely and relevant information to readers. As far as its role in society, this information helps citizens be engaged and active in the world around them.
Brittany (Brittany McLaughlin, account director): I like the way Liz described it. The role of media is to inform, but it’s up to society to take that information and use it.
Scott (Scott Baradell, founder/CEO): OK, I'll bring the old-fogey perspective. I started my career as a newspaper journalist in 1987, at a time when daily newspapers were the number one source of news in their cities, the three networks had straight-down-the-middle nightly newscasts, and CNN got its biggest ratings reporting on the weather. Getting a job at a major metropolitan daily was incredibly competitive; you might have 100 or more qualified applicants for a single position. The profession was respected for its role in informing the public. I worked on stories with folks whose political opinions were diametrically opposed to mine. It never mattered. We had been trained in newsgathering methods and had two or three editors behind us on every story making sure our stories were properly sourced and we were being fair and offering a voice to all sides of an issue. That was 30 years ago, but it seems like millennia. That's not what journalism is today.
Liz: I’ve seen the news media take a much sharper turn to become more agenda-driven in recent years—just as our nation has become polarized, so has the media. Unfortunately, what has suffered the most is truth—I find that it’s hard to find a complete picture from any one news source. Instead, everything I read is mildly or strongly tainted by the writer’s perspective.
Sarah (Sarah Jenne, public relations specialist): If it’s a journalist’s job to only present reliable, accurate facts, you won’t always get the truth. Sometimes it’s the nuances of a situation that really matter, which can’t always be proven as fact. Isn't everyone a little biased? I don't think it's fair to expect a completely objective article when a journalist is often writing on a topic using their judgement of the situation. The key is acknowledging that bias does exist, know how to manage it, and understand when it’s appropriate to make it into a story.
Liz: Journalists need to be like judges; they will all have biases and opinions. Who doesn’t?! But we expect them to check those biases at the door and provide fair treatment to all.
Scott: Of course, even the work of judges has become highly politicized of late—far more than ever before in our history.
Jarrett: Liz and Brittany, you both said the role of the media is to inform. And Katie, you said you look to the media for truth. Do you all think those are two different things?
Liz: Information is truth. One and the same.
Jarrett: When I started in journalism in the mid-1990s everything was about objectivity. You presented all sides and let the reader determine where they stood. Liz, you don't think that's the case anymore?
Liz: I’m not arguing against presenting multiple perspectives or contradictory ideas from different sources. However, where I think the news media has gone too far is in forming and pushing strong opinions based on facts within their story. That’s the job of the reader.
Katie: I still generally turn to the top-tier outlets that Alexis mentioned (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, etc.) for the truth and then do additional Googling to read about those topics a bit more. I think those tier-one outlets have done a good job over time of maintaining the standards that earned them such a reputable position to begin with.
I do still love the Washington Post but find myself reading their stories through the lens of “remember, Jeff Bezos/Amazon owns this. Is there an agenda there?”
Brittany: I agree with Katie about the top-tier outlets, and I think part of that has to do with the business model they’ve followed. A big driver of the change we’re seeing comes from the fact that most media didn’t take the internet seriously. Because of that, they gave online news away for free.
Alexis: I also think there's a lot less respect across the media. Can you imagine someone calling Peter Jennings or Walter Cronkite fake news?!
Scott: They would be called that in one second today. In fact, many conservatives today blame that liberal Cronkite for America losing the Vietnam War!
I trace a lot of the changes to Rush Limbaugh. He showed that discussion of current events could get high ratings without having to spend money on actual journalism or research. The key was to have very strong opinions and never back down. You never heard Rush say, “On the other hand ...’ And that's what our world has become, including the news media. Strong opinions make more money than down-the-middle reporting.
Brittany: News has become a form of entertainment. I was listening to NPR recently and John Stewart was promoting his latest movie. The reporter asked him if he felt responsible for turning news into Entertainment through The Daily Show.
Scott: Stewart was honest about what he was at least. Many of today's talking heads are purposely disingenuous; they only say they are "entertainment" when someone sues them for slander or libel.
Brittany: That was his reply, that he never intended to be anyone’s source of news.
Jarrett: A lot of the publications mentioned here have a national impact. What about local journalism or more niche publications? Are we even seeing this shift there?
Alexis: I feel like local news is one of the few places you can find a generally unbiased viewpoint. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that local papers are closing left and right.
Liz: I agree; local outlets seem to be the purest form of journalism right now.
Alexis: That said, I don't think they have the resources to fact-check the way they would like to. There simply aren't enough bodies in the newsroom anymore.
Scott: The direction of local media is the same as national. Sinclair has already taken its local TV stations in the direction of Fox News. Local newspapers are being bought up by hedge fund managers and having their staffs cut in half, or less than half. That means that they will have to turn to opinion and flash rather than substantive reporting because they no longer have the staffs to do real reporting.
Jarrett: So, if there might still be some bastions of purer journalism left, do we think this shift toward more agenda-focused journalism is something that's permanent, or will we shift back to a more traditional approach to journalism once things even out some?
Alexis: I'm not so sure I see an "evening out" of things in my lifetime...
Liz: I think it will require a completely new business model.
Brittany: I think that in order for journalism to return to its roots, readership needs to be less polarized.
Jarrett: Any idea what that model might be, Liz?
Alexis: I say we follow the BBC's model, where everyone with a TV pays a "license fee" that funds the news. Gets rid of private interests in reporting.
Liz: Honestly, I feel like the news media should be treated more like a non-profit. We need to recognize that it might not be able to generate profit but plays an important role in society.
Jarrett: So, if this is the direction of journalism now. How should it change PR? Both the importance of it as a practice for brands and for how we do our jobs as a PR agency?
Liz: There’s never been a greater need for strategic PR. Brands need to build a consistent narrative that takes into account the broader national conversations and need to be even more deliberate and nuanced when working with media.
Alexis: I think a big part of that is helping to make up for some of the respect journalists have lost elsewhere. First and foremost, don't waste their time. Send compelling, timely info that relates to their specific interests (do your research!!!). Accommodate requests as quickly as possible and have resources ready on deck if/when they ask. Make their jobs easier, because it's a really hard time to be a reporter.
Scott: Amen. Help these folks in their jobs and be respectful and empathetic. That's the least we can do.
And let me belatedly add a thought about business models. The guy behind Forbes Councils said he thinks that media brands with strong brand authority should become nonprofits in their journalism units, and then make all their profit from brand extensions. As he points out, if you continue to erode the brand trust with crappy journalism, you eventually lose your biggest asset and are left with nothing.
Katie: I think people are hungry for credibility and PR is an effective way to provide that. It’s a way to get the people’s/customers’ stories into reader’s hands. No one wants to hear just a sales pitch or subjective first-person account.
Scott: I feel like we've gone through the looking glass and that in too many cases, PR actually has higher ethical standards than many media outlets today—at least those agencies and professionals who adhere to the PRSA's ethical guidelines. The traditional ethical guidelines that have governed journalism have been abandoned in many cases in the quest for profitability, unfortunately. And those media outlets that have maintained high standards are constantly under attack, to the point where many people won't believe even the most well-researched and documented story.
Liz: With the fragmentation of media, this is also an opportunity for brand journalism. There are so many opportunities for brands to fill a void in their industries and provide the content and information that their professional communities need.
Alexis: As much as we'd like to see a return to the media landscape of yesteryear, we have to adapt to the one we've got. So, if we need to tailor an angle in a way that can produce a clickbait-y headline, so be it. That doesn't mean we have to be overly dramatic. We just need to help reporters drive their success—not just our own. What that actually looks like in practice can vary—finding stats that confirm a big trend, sharing journalists' articles (even when we're not featured), etc.