Are public relations effects of news sources having a detrimental impact on the quality and independence of the news we read?
Public relations is a relatively new industry that has been on the forefront of academic and trade professional debate in relation to the news media. According to Nick Davies (2008, pp. 85) Britain now has “more PR people than journalists”. The rise of public relations (PR) in the last decade has seen it discussed and argued in regards to its impact (be it good or bad) on the professional journalistic field.
The quality of news and the independence of journalists operating within this field is often brought into question in regard to public relations. Many academics (which will be addressed later) consider public relations to be highly influential in changing the formula in which journalists use to construct news. Trade professionals also consider this impact of PR, although some critics believe that the use of PR can be justified. These debates will be thoroughly studied in the following essay which will focus on political news coverage and also science news – which I will evaluate in terms of digital reporting, as I believe this area is where PR has developed furthest.
By studying these areas I plan on evaluating how detrimental an impact public relations has caused in regard to the quality of news produced as well as the independence of the journalists themselves when creating this news. In consideration of evaluating these aspects I must clarify that influence can be difficult to measure, that is why I will access PR from trade professionals, as well as academic readings.
To define public relations, The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (2014) provides a perspective from professional PR people stating that public relations:
“Looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour… maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”
This definition supports the notion that public relations does in fact “influence opinion” in favour of whomever the client may be, in order to “maintain goodwill” and reputation. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPHR) state in their code of conduct that two of the key standards that PR must follow are honesty and confidentiality. These key standards are positive in relation to maintaining the public sphere, however in practice they often contradict each other. How, for example, can public relations conceal information from the public in order to ‘maintain reputation’ of the client organisation whilst being completely honest with the public. This very ideology laid out by CIPHR may be the work of PR, Moloney (2006, pp. 41) claims that PR has “manipulated public opinion in favour of ideas, values and policies that economic and political elites…have favoured”. Public relations as an industry, works to “manage the public image and information, in the pursuit of organisational interests” according to Cottle (2003, pp. 3). It appears that public relations, according to these academic theorists, focuses on maintaining positive client image through the use of persuading or “manipulating” the public.
These counter arguments to the trade definition are supported by influential public relations spokesperson Edward Bernays (2005, pp. 37) who claims that PR is “intelligent manipulation” that remains “invisible” to the public. He argues that PR exemplifies the way in which the public are “moulded” and governed” by men who “pull the wires that control the public mind” (pp. 37). Public relations as defined by the industry attempts to sway negative perceptions of PR, stating that it operates to “achieve goals” by influencing and maintaining specific images and opinions of organisations (Department of Trade and Industry and Institute of Public Relations 2003, pp. 6). Whereas academics and critical perspectives from trade individuals claim that PR “influences” and “manipulates” the public (Bernays 2005; Moloney 2006). Clearly there is a split in how academics define the operation of public relations and how the industry defines itself.
One area in which public relations influence can be analysed is in political news coverage. In an industry that seeks to influence public opinion, political news coverage is a sphere often brought into debate. Franklin (1994, pp. 3) explains the ideology of the fourth estate that is regularly considered true among journalist professionals. According to this fourth estate journalists “subject all aspects of political life to close scrutiny” and is a “key mechanism for securing the accountability of politicians to the general public” (pp. 3). Franklin argues that this ideology mirrors the canine metaphor that journalists act as “watchdogs” to guard and protect public interest -consequently the public sphere (1994, pp. 3; 2009, pp. 84). Instead, Franklin explains, this fourth estate has been replaced by the fifth estate which in turn represents the expansion of public relations in the UK (2010, pp. 84).
This expansion of public relations derives from the increasing pressures of creating and delivering quality news quicker than ever before. Conboy (2012, pp. 113) argues that there is a widely accepted perception that public relations are “dominating” journalists due to this pressure to “produce results quickly”. Steven Lewis (2015, pp. 10), a PR professional, backs this notion that journalists are under pressure as they have “dozens of blank pages” to fill each day. They are busy “because they’re doing more with less” (pp. 25) in this working environment he claims (pp. 10). This implies that public relations provides a form of lifeline to journalists by supplying them with the information subsidies required to fill these blank spaces. The use of PR in this way carries consequences on political news coverage.
The news media has been subject to the symptoms of a changing political economy in which public relations is almost always considered as a necessary tool to be used. This can be seen by businesses, the government and of course the media. This can be demonstrated in political news coverage. Wilcox et al (1986, pp. 27) stresses the importance of “image-building” for politicians and this constant need for positive representation can be accomplished using PR techniques. It is interesting to consider the impact that PR can bring on public opinion and the question regarding influence on democracy of news. Continuing from what Franklin (2009, pp. 84) argued considering the ‘fifth estate’ and expansion of PR, he goes on to support this shift in regard to ‘packaging politics’. He argues that PR has created a method of delivering political influence to the public in the form of ‘packaging politics’, this is the way in which politicians and political parties create information subsidies for journalists. These subsidies contain key ideas and issues of importance to that person or party. By doing my own research online I quickly found that major political parties such as the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all have their own in-house press office. Here press have access to archives of speeches and proposals by party leaders and other party members.
This method of distributing political information is part of what Franklin (1994, pp. 9) calls the ‘packaging of politics’ in which politics is turned into an over-simplified and “trivializing…armchair activity” (pp. 10-1). This reliance on pre-packaged news from PR sources evidently has an impact on the quality of news consumed by the public. It can be argued that Habermas’ (1991) concept of the public sphere, which prioritises the public’s freedom to knowledge from the news, is compromised by the reliance on information subsidies from PR. Washbourne (2014, pp. 38) discusses the negative side of subsidies donning them as ‘fake news’. He goes on to say that albeit the information received from these subsidies may be of great value, they “do so in furtherance of the material interests of PR practitioner’s clients” (pp. 38). Franklin (1994, pp. 9) supports this notion arguing that the ‘packaging of politics’ “manipulates, as well as informs, the public”, these subsidies hand-feed journalists (Murray 2001, pp. 26) information that politicians (or spin doctors more likely) want to distribute in order to promote their political ideologies or smear their opponent parties. Davies (2009, pp. 154) shares this concern stating that reporting is vulnerable to being “infiltrated by stories which are generated by PR acting for commercial and political interests”.
This is demonstrated with political lobbying. Lobbying is to politics what PR is to journalism – it is a specialist area of public relations that involves relationships between journalists and politicians. The practice of lobbying involves journalists taking MPs and other party staff members out in an attempt to earn their favour and exchange backhand information, which is considered highly unethical and undemocratic. The UK stands as one of the highest in lobbying exchanges, evidence was found by the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 revealing numerous examples of this activity that had taken place (2014).
One example of lobbying can be seen by British pressure group Taxpayer’s Alliance (TPA) who frequently make statements and provide ‘research’ to back their claims. This research is carried out by the TPA themselves which questions the objectivity of the findings. According to lobbying website Who’s Lobbying, the TPA have submitted ‘oral evidence’ on various cases to parliament committees and on one occasion even met with Exchequer Secretary of the Treasury in 2011 to discuss ‘tax issues’. It is a worrying revelation that pressure groups can obtain this access to members of influence and potentially inflict their own agenda upon them. These actions are considered as ‘dark arts’ encouraged and performed by political spin. Another level of deceit to the public by these ‘dark arts’ is the selection of specific journalists to meet up with. In relation to the independence of journalists these ‘dark arts’ are very detrimental to their freedom. A very good quote, from fictional character Malcolm Tucker from British political comedy series The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12), explains that reporters will report what they are told by spin, albeit they may know that the information is false or somewhat bias, they will write it anyway in order to receive future subsidies. If they don’t report what they are told then they potentially lose access to a source of political information. This reality is addressed by Leon (1973, pp. 60) who claims that “journalists have some definitional power…but sources have the upper hand”. This is echoed by Gans (1979, pp. 116) who resembles the relationship between journalists and sources as a sequence of dance, in which more often than not, the sources lead. This resemblance to dance suggests that the independence of journalists within the political sector is slim. As part of Davies’ (2009) ‘rules of production’, he states that reporters have to select “safe facts” in regards to keeping “moral and political values safe” (pp. 125). The increasing use of information subsidies, following the expansion of public relations, has caused journalists to lose freedom of speech regarding politicians as they face the risk of losing out altogether.
Another area of journalism that has seen a large dependency on public relations is in science news. Science reporting appears to be impacted by the increasing use of public relations within the journalistic field, this inevitably has a domino effect on the independence and quality of the work produced by journalists. From my own research into science reporting it is clear that some media outlets such as the Mail Online, Wales Online and even media institutions such as The Telegraph – which carries high symbolic capital, feature evidence of PR in their articles. One example of this can be seen from the Mail Online, who recently posted a story about speed reading. From a quick Nexis search it was confirmed that most of the article had been copied from a newswire source, which was made available a day before the Daily Mail posted it online. The Daily Mail (online) stories, especially science related reporting, rely heavily on press releases and newswire material. This is demonstrated with simple checking through Nexis’ powerful search tool. These articles exemplify what Davies (2009, pp. 69) calls ‘churnalism’. The process in which journalists simply ‘copy and paste’ press releases without any considerable validity check. This symptom of modern journalism is the consequence of what Dr Martin Moore (2015) calls “aggression in the newsroom”, in which more journalists are fired but the demand for news goes up. Russell (2008) supports this argument, stating that these cutbacks and “increased pressure to churn out online news” has given PR even greater “prominence in science coverage”. Inevitably this does have a detrimental impact on the quality of news, as journalists have to face the ‘need for speed’ of providing content (Franklin 2008; Davies 2008, pp. 82; Cushion & Lewis 2009; Lewis 2015, pp. 25). As a consequence, the independence of journalists is also affected by the shift in how reporting operates, they become “passive processors of second-hand material” (Davies 2008, pp. 113). This insight into how the journalism practice has changed heightens the concern surrounding science and political reporting in terms of the validity and objectivity of the news. The reliance on information subsidies which often come from leading political parties such as the conservative party, or from ‘research’ that may also be sponsored by large corporations. Influence from the strongest voices remains present, however there is potentially less space (and time) for journalists to provide fair, objective coverage of subjects, which can be considered a downfall caused by public relations pressure.
In conclusion, it is fair to say public relations definitely has an impact on journalistic independence and quality of news. From the findings stated above in regard to political and science reporting, it is clear that PR has a negative impact to a certain extent. News stories are littered with information that has merely been lifted from press releases or subsidies, which can harm the objectivity of the story, more so Habermas’ (1991) idea of the public sphere is in danger here. It is hard to justify the ‘watchdog’ mentality that Franklin (1994, pp. 3) addresses because of these reasons. It is not possible for a journalist to scrutinize politicians and the companies in power if they rely on these same agents to provide them with the news in which they write. Journalistic independence is arguably non-existent in these circumstances. On the other hand however, public relations does offer relief in what Moore (2015) claims to be a more “aggressive” working environment. Journalists lack the time necessary to do their own research and also truth-check data and information passed on to them. Public relations in most cases provides ‘quality’ writing by industry professionals. The information that they provide may contain bias, but in most cases it is written to a good enough standard to be regarded as quality reporting. Reliance on PR material is in no way good for journalism, and it displays a negative shift in values of the profession; but the fact that PR professionals come from journalistic backgrounds, and therefore the writing is of good quality arguably suggests that PR isn’t as detrimental to journalists as first made out to be. The increase in PR is worrying for the independence of journalists, but in the ever-quickening demand for news, PR can be a lifeline.
*This essay was originally written in 2016 for my undergraduate degree.*
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