Is Journalism the New Public Relations?

Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity
10 min readAug 16, 2021

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Back when I headed up the journalism program at a university in New York, I sought to add public relations courses to the curriculum, only to be met with furious opposition from members of the faculty. Their objections went something like this:

Journalism builds trust by objectively reporting honest and accurate information to the general public; whereas public relations is biased and targeted at specific audiences with the aim of framing the narrative to support a particular agenda.

That was then. These days journalism programs across the country (including the one I managed) are home to not just public relations courses but entire departments, largely due to recognitionat least by students — of where the jobs are. Between now and the end of the decade, the number of reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts in the United States is projected to drop by 11 percent. Public relations employment, on the other hand, will grow by about seven percent.

Fear and Unbalanced

With respect to those distinctions cited by the faculty, the extent to which they may have once existed has considerably diminished. As in the case of the journalistic shibboleth of objectivity. Conceived more than a century ago in response to an era of yellow journalism, it was championed by the likes of Adolph Ochs, owner of the New York Times, who vowed to “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor.”

Essentially binary in its presumption, it posits there are two sides to most issues, both equally valid. But not all things being equal in a complex world, such fair-mindedness can sometimes give undo weight to a party that doesn’t deserve it. Media coverage of climate change, for example, until fairly recently paid the same deference to deniers as it did to a far larger and more legitimate scientific community.

Moreover, objectivity operates on the premise that information being provided is truly honest and accurate, which is not always so:

· When pollster Frank Luntz oversaw a series of live-streamed focus groups for the LA Times after the 2020 presidential debates, he publicly stated he was “ethically and professionally required to interpret public opinion accurately, factually and without bias.” What he didn’t say was he was also being paid by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R, CA) political action committee.

· Christina Bobb, a reporter for One America News Network (OAN) covered the Arizona election audit without making it known she had raised money for the effort and furnished information to the state’s Senate president.

· Nor did CNN’s Chris Cuomo initially disclose he helped develop a crisis communication strategy for his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was being investigated for sexual harassment.

· A network of about 1,300 web sites masquerading as local news often presents stories that have been directed by Republican-backed political groups and corporate PR firms.

· Democratic operatives maintain similar news sites, but on a smaller scale.

Worse still, calls for impartiality can be a guise for intimidation and suppression. Such as when right-wing groups released pro-Palestinian tweets from Associated Press (AP) news associate Emily Wilder, which she posted when she was a student at Stanford University. Concerned that the revelation would brand it as “anti-Israel” the AP fired Wilder, to the dismay of over 100 staff members. A month later, Scientific American magazine retracted an opinion piece by healthcare workers in support of Palestinians after conservative critics labeled it an “anti-Israel screed.” Incidents like these trouble many news professionals as more of them have begun to question how the press covers Middle East conflicts. In June, over 200 journalists signed an open letter calling for U.S. media to improve coverage of Palestine. At the same time, a top correspondent with Israel’s daily Haaretz newspaper resigned over its failure to report attacks against Palestinian citizens.

Fact or Friction

Whether or not the current practice of objectivity begets genuine fairness, it does deliver something equally prized — conflict. Nowhere is this more evident than in the coverage of politics. Research reported by Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab found that the U.S. House of Representatives Americans see on television is “much more ideologically extreme” than the actual institution. After reviewing more than 46,000 transcripts from both cable and broadcast news networks, researchers determined that congresspeople on the far right and far left get more airtime than their more moderate counterparts.

Capitalizing on this trend, representatives like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene eagerly push the envelope of asininity, even at the cost of losing committee assignments. For his part, North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn has told colleagues “I have built my staff around comms [communication] rather than legislation.” Not surprisingly, studies have shown this type of behavior — and how the media cover it — make it harder to pass needed legislation.

Accentuate the Negative

If all of this is discouraging, that may be the intent. Highlighting the negative is a longstanding journalism tradition, especially when it involves partisan combatants. After analyzing more than 140,000 tweets posted by 44 news agencies — on both the right and the left — investigators at Harvard and DePaul universities concluded that negative news spreads faster online and engages more users than positive posts. So much so, notes one scholar, “it’s the first time in U.S. history that negativity toward one’s out-group is stronger than positivity toward one’s in-group.”

The vintage maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” has exemplified much of the reporting on the pandemic. As per a study out of Dartmouth College, coverage by mainstream media has been far more negative than by any other source, Better than 85 percent of Covid accounts in national U.S. media last year was negative, compared to 64 percent in scientific journals, 53 percent in local news, and 51 percent in international sources. This was true of liberal media like MSNBC and right-wing networks like Fox News.

According to the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism research organization: “these horror stories and numbers are often presented without context, without nuance, without all the facts. The media, perhaps even unintentionally, often isn’t telling the full story in the fight against COVID-19, and this is leading to confusion and panic.”

In their defense, news organizations argue they are giving the public what it wants. And they may be right. The Dartmouth study found that the stories most read or shared on Facebook were also the most negative. This jibes with an earlier experiment at McGill University, where participants, when given a choice, elected to read negative news despite saying they preferred positive reporting.

Repeat After Me

Unfortunately, these organizations also give the public lots of misinformation. Perhaps not always deliberately, but the media still play a pivotal role in spreading fake news. In its analysis of how cable news covered Donald Trump’s tweets charging election fraud, media watchdog First Draft determined the networks provided his rants 32 hours of screen time. MSNBC led the pack with twelve hours, followed by CNN at ten-and-a half, and Fox with just under ten hours.

Granted, their intent at times was to expose the former president’s lies. But they frequently achieved the opposite. The illusory truth effect is a phenomenon whereby the more people are exposed to an idea — true or false — the more likely they are to believe it; and repeated attempts to refute falsehoods only serve to reinforce them. This isn’t news to most journalists, yet they persist in doing so.

Stories also become more biased as they are continually retold. Like the children’s game of telephone, the further a message travels from its source the more likely each reteller will reinterpret it. What is more, research has shown that with each iteration the information becomes more negative.

Gravity

There is, of course, a more practical reason the press reported on Trump’s every utterance — it was good for business. In a year dominated by a once-in-a-century pandemic and an extremely contentious presidential election, many news media experienced dramatic growth. According to Comscore TV Essentials® the average size of CNN’s audience shot up 72 percent. Fox saw its surge 61 percent, while MSNBC’s increased 28 percent.

They were hardly alone. The average audience for broadcast television news went up as much as 16 percent. Local news stations jumped four percent. On the print side, subscriptions at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The New Yorker magazines climbed as well. Plus, circumstances gave rise to alt-right news sites like OAN and Newsmax.

Needless to say, what goes up almost always comes down, and as a headline in The Washington Post dolefully proclaimed: “Trump predicted news ratings would ‘tank if I’m not there.’ He wasn’t wrong.” In the second quarter of 2021, each of the three cable networks gave up at least 30 percent of their audience compared to the year before. Readership at mainstream publications declined by 18 percent. And upstart Newsmax lost more than half of the viewers it had at the start of the year.

Recognizing that the news media sometimes played the role of Donald Trump’s publicist, pretenders such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and My Pillow guy Mike Lindell have vied for the spotlight. But none have triumphed more than Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson. Doing verbal battle with the Pentagon, Center for Disease Control, Anti-Defamation League, National Security Agency and Capitol Police, among others, he has garnered a measure of coverage that would make even the most voracious media whore drool. Many in the journalism community have given him outsized attention, even though a U.S. District Court judge presiding over a defamation suit against Carlson agreed with Fox’s legal argument that he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.”

No Sale

It would be wrong to tar an entire profession based on these and similar improprieties. Myriad journalists do an exceptional job of reporting on the world around them, often at great personal risk. Even so, such offenses persist, and apparently the public isn’t buying into the myths the news media have created for themselves; and which belie much of their conduct.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, close to 80 percent of participants think news outlets take sides when covering social and political issues; and do so with a specific agenda. An Axios/SurveyMonkey poll concurs, with more than half (58%) of respondents claiming “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.” Nearly that many (56%) also agree that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

The upshot is damaging to both the press and public. A joint study across multiple universities found that exposure to partisan media — at both ends of the political spectrum — reduces peoples’ trust. The sheer volume and complexity of information has also become so exhausting, a growing number of consumers are avoiding news altogether.

What’s Next?

No doubt the past few years have been tough on the news business. Organizations have lost audiences, advertisers, and now some of their best people. The latter have begun abandoning their longtime employers to start their own subscription-based newsletters on platforms like Substack, Ghost, and Facebook’s Bulletin. The appeal is that these personal paid publications enable journalists to target receptive niche audiences and, for the most prominent at least, earn considerable sums doing so. So far, however, many of these primarily comprise opinions and commentaries without the benefit of original reporting, editing, or fact-checking.

Not to be outdone, some major news outlets like The New York Times are generating their own paid subscription newsletters, while others are pursuing options such as streaming their products. Each of the three cable news channels has launched streaming news services, as have the broadcast networks and several local television stations. The upside, note proponents, is they provide space for more detailed, in-depth content. The downside, worry skeptics, is that like newsletters, they are geared to readers and viewers who can afford to pay for the privilege, engendering a society of news haves and have-nots.

Still others are attempting to present news in more intelligible forms. Digital sources such as Vox and FiveThirtyEight are practicing what has come to be known as “explanatory journalism” by not merely reporting facts but also clarifying and contextualizing them. The Solution Journalism Network is an independent, non-profit organization that advocates “rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.”

At a time as chaotic and uncertain as this, journalists are endeavoring to make sense of it all. But then so are public relations professionals. During the past several years as trust in the media has fallen, trust in business has risen, and Corporate America has been drawn into a host of unfamiliar social and political issues. Thus, PR pros are being forced to communicate outside their conventional comfort zones, interpreting fuzzy concepts like stakeholder capitalism and adopting new techniques such as brand journalism. Nonetheless, their ultimate goal remains the same: to frame the narrative to support a particular outcome or agenda.

As for journalism, its course is still unsettled and will likely be so for a while. In the meantime, the profession will keep searching for its place in an ever more complex communication ecosystem. And though not directly encroaching on public relations’ turf, it is certainly blurring some lines.

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Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity

Making complex ideas easier to access, understand, and use