Panel debates “Is PR killing real journalism?”

Journalists and PR people squared up to one another at a panel debate at the University of Lincoln on Monday, February 22nd, to argue if Public Relations “is killing real journalism”.

Organised by the Lincoln School of Journalism, the panel included Anita Raghavan, a journalist with Forbes magazine, and Marc Wadsworth, a lecturer at City University and founder and editor of the-latest.com.

On the PR side were Andy Green, part of Green Communications, and Peter Smith, a lecturer at the university with significant PR experience.

Raghavan spoke first, and was very direct in her judgement: “Public relations is killing real journalism.”

“In the past decade we have had two [economic] bubbles, and both have gone largely unreported by the press until after the fact,” she said, and blamed the role of PR people in obscuring the truth. (“Dare I say it, outright lying.”)

She gave the example of Lehman Brothers, who had launched a new financial product (of the sort that helped caused the recent crisis), and said that the bank’s PR people had said it was a “non-story”. US law now explicitly forbids such products.

The other speaker for the journalist’s side, Marc Wadsworth, went over some of the points made by Guardian journalist Nick Davies, whose claims in “Flat Earth News” clearly influenced the debate.

“The ‘news space’ has trebled while the number of journalists has declined. PRs are taking advantage of ‘churnalism’.” (A word Davies uses throughout “Flat Earth News”, referring to journalists just “churning out” stories, with little checking.)

Wadsworth also used the Iraq war as an example of PR spin selling a conflict which has since claimed around 1,300,000 Iraqi lives.

He also talked about Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “Propaganda Model”, saying that the business orientation of the media, and their practice of stationing journalists at “news hubs” — such as the White House — makes it very easy for PR people to manipulate the news.

Meanwhile, Andy Green, the first speaker for the PR side, came out with the absurd notion that “there’s nothing definitive in this world… there’s no such thing as a definitive answer.”

While he was right that “the challenge you have for any so-called fact is the context,” he followed it with the bizarre suggestion that “the idea that there’s an objective truth is a false concept”.

Green talked about finding “common ground” with journalists, which was echoed by Peter Smith, who said that he was a “communicator”.

“The reason I do PR is because I believe in journalism. My job as a PR man is to make sure journalists get access to facts and information,” he said, though he admitted that the “facts” would be tailored sometimes.

“Spin happens. It happens because people are addressing a particular agenda.”

Raghavan challenged Green’s remarks, saying: “[Green] has told us it’s not about good or bad, or black or white. [But] judgements have to be made. Everyday we have to make judgements.”

9 Responses to Panel debates “Is PR killing real journalism?”

  1. Andy Green says:

    The first rule of journalism: check your facts.
    A quick search on T’internet would reveal a considerable body of information on ‘relativism’. There seems to be a lot of absurd people out there.

    If you are going to put a perjorative against someone’s name – make sure you do so on sound footing.

    Article would benefit from better balance – forgive me, I may have dreamt this, but wasn’t there a vote at the end of the debate?

    Thanks by the way to anyone attending the debate who since sent me some lovely e mails.

  2. Rob Wells says:

    Dear Andy,

    By asking me to look up relativism you still do not help your case. You said that “there’s no such thing as a definitive answer”, when this is clearly wrong. The definitive answer to how much my cup of coffee cost me in monetary terms is 90 pence. Perhaps you were only referring to situations with contentious issues, but you made a sweeping statement with no caveats.

    Yes, there was a vote at the end of the debate, and yes there were more people who thought PR wasn’t “killing real journalism”, but this carries next to no information. There was a paragraph at the end of my original copy — which I removed because of the article’s length — which read:

    Unfortunately, giving a simple yes or no answer to the question posed — as the audience were asked to at the end of the evening — strips away the complexity of the situation journalism is currently in. The trade is affected by a number of factors — ownership, business models, technology, etc. — and not just PR.

    And as for balance in general, to paraphrase the late Molly Ivins, there’s no point reporting that one side says “cat” and the other “dog”, when the truth is that there’s an elephant crashing around in the bushes.

  3. Jane Crofts says:

    Must confess to detecting a little bias in the reporting… the debate was a joint venture with the MAPR team and the vote concluded PR is not killing journalism.

    All four speakers had the same length of time to speak and yet the PR viewpoint has had hardly a mention!

    Brings me back to a thought I had on the night and supported by some of the journalism academics…in this world we need to co-operate to give people information, facts and listen to their views we should be working together not casting each other as the devil incarnate.

    Oh yes, and as a professional PR I am not allowed to lie.

  4. David Clare says:

    How biased is this article?! PR won the debate, that is the definitive answer that you love so much.

  5. Rob Wells says:

    Dear Jane,

    With regards to the vote at the end of the night, it was a yes/no poll whether PR was “killing real journalism”, which an extreme statement. As I mentioned in my reply to Mr Green, this carries next to no information. The result showed that a majority in the room did not think it was a fatal situation, but gives no information on whether people think PR is having a detrimental affect on journalism.

    Also, I have never suggested that the report is unbiased, and quite clearly my sympathies lie with the journalists’ views. My reason for not giving more space to the “PR viewpoint” is because the same things were largely just repeated the whole way through: there’s no definitive answer, we should work together and find common ground, we don’t lie.

    The journalists, on the other hand, used evidence to back up their arguments, giving several examples.

    More generally, when it comes to “co-operat[ing] to give people information”, I agree, but with a large dose of caution. As Peter Smith said on Monday, spin happens when people follow an agenda — and when an organisation hires PR people the reason is so that they can get their viewpoint out there. That’s their agenda.

    To take corporate PR as an example, what’s good for the company (and the line their PR people will take, or else there’s no point employing them) might not be good for people in general.

  6. Jane Crofts says:

    Hi Rob –

    I thought the article was supposed to be a report of the event, so a question – is the item you have written journalism or an opinion piece?

    If it is journalism then it is poor because it lacks balance. If it is an opinion piece fair enough, be as biased as you wish but be transparent in your intentions, just like we PRs are! ;-)

    Warm regards,

    Jane

  7. I’m sure Rob will want to reply to you too, but I thought I’d add a quick comment to the debate too!

    It’s interesting that you think unbalanced journalism is poor journalism. Surely if the weight of the debate fell more on the side of the journalists, which is what I feel having also attended the event, then surely that should be reflected in the article?

    I actually voted that PR isn’t killing journalism, because I think it’s media proprietors and their relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of journalists that’s the problem. But looking at the debaters, for me the journalists had it hands down.

  8. Rob Wells says:

    Dear Jane,

    The article is a report of the event, but just emphasises a certain viewpoint. The entire notion that journalists can be impartial and neutral is a complete sham. Any story that you look at will select some facts over others, highlight some opinions over others. (The American journalist Chris Hedges has recently written a good article on the topic.)

    As for balance, please see the end of my response to Andy Green.

  9. Carol Arthur says:

    As a former journalist and now chair of the Chartered Institute of PR Yorks and Lincs group I am following the current journalism v PR debate with interest. The university is to be congratulated in entering into the fray but I would like to have seen a more balanced, less biased review of the event.

    Rob, your article is way too subjective. No sub editor I ever came across would have let you get away with the adjectives ‘absurd’ and ‘bizarre’. I agree with Jane – this piece is fine as an opinion piece, but objective reporting…. never!

    Carol Arthur