PR, journalism and reliable reporting

without comments

The PR vs Journalism debate continues tomorrow – this time at the Westminster Media Forum. Lord Fowler and Baroness Howe are chairing – fresh from the Select Committee on Communications that just published its report on Friday. Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, will open by painting a scary and depressing picture of the reliance of contemporary journalism on PR (I’m guessing – based on his description of the situation in Flat Earth News – he could of course paint a very different picture).

I’m appearing on one of the panels along with Mark Borkowski, Willam Gore and James Doherty, talking about what – if anything – can be done “to ensure good standards of reliability in reporting”.

Without reprising much of the background to this debate (for which you can read about – or even listen to – the PR/Journalism event we held back in April) I’m going to suggest three things (given I’ll only have 3 minutes):

1. We don’t need more regulation. As with regulation of the press, it’s difficult to see how the benefits of regulating PR would outweigh the damage it could do. Except in extreme cases – such as financial insider trading information – where there are already regulatory and self-regulatory measures in place, it’s hard to see how greater policing and surveillance by the government would be a better cure than exposure in the press.

2. We do need more transparency. When the number of people working in public relations in Britain surpasses the number of journalists (as happened recently according to Nick Davies), and when the line between PR material and journalism – especially online – becomes blurred to the point of invisibility, then it’s clear we need to know more about the information we’re consuming so we can judge it better. As David Weinberger writes in his fascinating new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, ‘the solution to the over abundance of information is more information’. Indeed this is the whole purpose of the Media Standards Trust’s tranparency initiative (that I’ve blogged about here).

3. PR needs to adopt some of the values of journalism. The growth of PR – within independent news and elsewhere – isn’t going to stop. PR will become bigger and even more amorphous. When you read on GreenPeace’s website that a Japanese vessel has just broken international whaling law, is it news or PR? Both. When you learn from an email press release that scientists at Newcastle have just identified an alzheimer’s gene is that news or PR? Both. Therefore it’s not a question of ‘how do we constrain PR?’ but rather ‘how do we change some of the behaviour and values of PR given its new and expanding role?’ In particular, how do we convince those within PR – particularly those in the public sector or at NGOs, that they are part of a new and expanded Fourth Estate, and as such have a greater responsibility to society than they used to (when much of what they put out was ‘filtered’)? (see earlier blog on ‘why charities need to become more like news organisations’ too).

Any thoughts on this much appreciated. These are tricky questions and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have answers to many of them – so let me know what you think (and if you let me know before tomorrow morning it’ll feed into what I say).

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2008 at 7:46 am

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