Monday, July 7, 2008

Journalism vs. Public Relations Writing, Ethics

The more I experience public relations, the more I see both similarities and differences with journalism. The symbiosis that exists between the two professions, that being between reporters and practitioners, increases daily. With newsroom cuts and the increasing need for convergence journalism, reporters have to double, maybe even triple, their output from years gone by. The time to research and do in-depth, enterprising reporting unfortunately isn't granted to many journalists anymore. So, reporters turn to PR practitioners for story pitches, news releases, packaged quotes and quick answers to their questions.

I can say in my journalism experience, I appreciate a good media relations professional who returns my calls or e-mails promptly. That is the source I will go back to again, if I can, for another story because, especially as a freelancer, the more stories I can get done in a shorter amount of time, the more money I make. This isn't to say I scrimp on the details or do sloppy reporting just to get a story finished. But if I trust two sources equally to give me fair and accurate information, say a geology professor from Virginia Tech and one from the University of Virginia, I'm going to quote the expert who gets back to me most quickly with the best quotes (by best, I mean easiest to understand, vivid, etc.). This same concept is applicable to PR flacks. However, as journalists, we have to be careful that we don't just let practitioners feed us one story after another without finding out anything about possible opposing angles. This is where the difference in writing style comes into play. Generally, the most controversial issue will be the lede* for the story in journalism. If it involves taxpayer money, community involvement or some other hot-button issue, that will be the focus. Often, reporters will not reproduce the source material directly without some follow-up questions. However, sometimes, this will be the case for trusted sources (such as a university news release reprinted in the school newspaper).

What are some other differences in the writing styles? I'd love to hear comments from people who are students of either discipline or have worked in them. To me, it seems as though the two are becoming increasingly similar. In fact, in my limited work in PR, my writing has been almost identical to the writing I've done in journalism. Again, the main difference here is in the main focus of the story and the lack of controversial angles. Let's say a big-box store is going to come into a small town, and the company is one of the PR firm's clients. The news release might focus on the economic benefits and the involvement of community input. The newspaper story, though, may focus on the townspeople's opposition to the project, zoning issues, etc. Of course, a fair news story would cover both sides, but the first paragraph would likely involve the more-controversial, "newsworthy" part of the story. The fact is, news releases and such that look more like news stories and provide quotes and good contact information are more likely to get covered — even word-for-word reproduced in some cases.

Other than the focus of the story — one story in favor of the client who is paying the practitioner to write it, and one more in favor of the people over whom the press is supposed to be watching out for — I do not see a lot of differences in PR writing and journalistic writing lately. If I had to pick out one other thing, I think it would be the storytelling style. In journalism, narrative storytelling usually takes place, but when writing for PR, even a news release, it seems as though you are concisely telling the people just the facts. Yes, PR writing is even more concise than journalistic writing because you have to remember a reporter/editor is on deadline and often in a hurry. Plus, if you have easy-to-access info, especially in the form of a bulleted fact sheet, accompanied by contact info, the journalist can grab most of what he or she needs and build around that info with quotes and additional research as needed.

There has been some recent controversy surrounding the reputation of the public relations business in recent weeks, but most of it just seems ironically to be a case of bad PR for PR. I feel like myself and other practitioners are honest and ethical, and our messages just work from the aspect of how we frame them. Framing issues in the favor of our clients is not lying, though we may not expose the whole truth. So what about those who have done PR for big tobacco and such? This is a tricky line to cross because deceptive advertising comes into play here also. Not all PR firms have an advertising counterpart, but many do. Where do you think we as practitioners have to draw the line? Where, as journalists, do we have to draw the line in using flacks as sources?

More so than act like I have the answers to these questions, I'd like to open up the floor for discussion. Feel free to comment on this post; I'd love to hear what everyone has to say. All I know for sure right now is that both journalism and public relations are honorable professions with rich histories, and they are both fun to be part of. As a freelancer/intern, I've had a unique opportunity not only to cross over to PR from journalism as many have done in recent years, but also to experience both professions at the same time. Of course, covering PR clients for my news stories is a no-no, but there is always an ethical dilemma I think any journalist who crosses over experiences at some point. Has anyone out there dealt with this issue as well?

Expect future posts on this topic, especially if I get enough feedback from your comments to blog about.

*Note: I prefer lede to lead, a journalistic tradition that differentiated the two words when lead (Pb) was a term often used to refer to various aspects of the printing process once wooden type was replaced in the 19th century.


rdelaude said...

The only difference I've found between PR and journalism writing is the lack of oppositional angle, and that you have to spell out every freaking department all the way down the org chart whenever you try to say anything :)

JD said...

Ah, yeah, when I did PR for Marshall as an undergrad, I remember doing that also. You don't want to make anyone feel left out. :)

jasmine said...

Hello, I'm a Journalism Major from Malaysia and we just discussed this topic in class. I googled and your site came up. Thanks for the interesting article. I think this is a very important discussion every person in media should think about.

What is your take on journalists receiving goodie packs/favours from PR people?

Joshua A. DeLung said...

Hi, Jasmine. Thanks so much for reading. Please tell your friends and classmates to read as well.

As far as gifts from PR people to journalists goes, I think it is a fine line that has to be interpreted carefully.

Is a free album from someone promoting an artist too much? I don't think so. If the gift helps the two people do their job better and helps develop a relationship, as long as they can both remain professional, I don't see too much of a problem.

I think the problem occurs when someone receives a favor in a pay-to-play scenario — in other words, the PR person pays for coverage in a media outlet with money or something else. This makes readers/viewers think that what they are seeing is newsworthy, when in fact it might just be monetarily backed.

This is what the FCC was trying to address with its recent rulings, especially targeting bloggers, in the sense that media (mainstream and otherwise) need to practice full disclosure if an article or post is sponsored.

As journalists, we can't mislead our publics. We have a duty to be the watchdog, after all.

As PR practitioners, we can't afford to rely on the news release alone to always generate coverage for our clients. We have to be creative, but we also have to be ethical.

I think the primary responsibility, however, lies with the journalist in most cases to do the right thing.