Journalism Needs to Punch Back

Time to launch Journalism Fight Club.

When the PR consultants start dictating news coverage – everyone loses.  Even the PR consultants and the brands they represent.

That’s because the value of journalism is its objectivity.  If journalism loses objectivity it loses credibility – as well as its value.  And right now, journalism is in the midst of a crisis of credibility.  There are several reasons for this, but one of the big ones is a loss of control to PR consultants.

Simply point, at this stage of the game, the PR consultants are better, smarter and more experienced than the journalists.

PR consultants are two steps ahead.  They know the weaknesses and understand the strengths of journalists.  They also know that journalism is in flux.  Losing readers, losing money and reducing head count.  Seasoned veterans are being replaced by young untested talent.  The youngsters – like the replacement referees in the NFL – are getting bullied by the PR consultants.

No where is this more evident than in political reporting.  New York Times columnist David Carr this week lifted the veil on the ugly practice of quotation approval that has become standard in Washington D.C., but is also now part of business reporting.  This is the practice of having quotes reviewed and approved by PR consultants or they can’t be used.

As Carr noted:

“It used to be that American businesses either told reporters to go away or told them what they wanted to know. Now, a reporter trying to interview a business source is confronted by a phalanx of factotums, preconditions and sometimes a requirement that quotations be approved. What pops out of that process isn’t exactly news and isn’t exactly a news release, but contains elements of both.”

No one wins with this approach.  Readers get watered down, message-laden copy rather than compelling stories.

There has always been tension between journalists and PR professionals – hacks vs. flacks.  I’ve experienced it from both sides of the table as a newspaper reporter and as a PR consultant.  The tension is real and it can occasionally can slip into hostility.  Obviously, hostility is a bad thing, but the tension isn’t.

It keeps both the journalists and the PR consultants on their toes.  Journalists need to be alert, skeptical, and driven by the facts.  PR consultants need to be honest, forthright, and helpful.  When one side isn’t doing their job then problems rise.  Abuses occur.  Bad practices get introduced.

Journalism – and journalists – need to fight back.  They need to work with PR consultants, but not be dictated by them.  Journalism isn’t a messaging document.  If it isn’t authentic and honest then it loses its value.

To everyone.

What do you think?


“The Puppetry of Quotation Approval” by David Carr

Balance Continues to Undermine Journalism

Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism

The rules of Fight Club

5 Responses to “Journalism Needs to Punch Back”

  1. Aren’t they all? 🙂

  2. Hi George,

    Good piece, but there is one additional reason flacks like us sometimes ask for quote approval: We or our clients have been egregiously misquoted in the past and don’t want to get burned again. And as you note, many journalists are junior and often write about subjects they don’t know much about, especially in B2B trade media. And while journalists should be objective, I’ve found that quite a few are not and can be biased toward a certain company, politician, etc.

    While quote checking should certainly be an exception and not a rule, I’ve asked for it in both of these circumstances in the past. I’ve caught quite a few mistakes in quotes that were reviewed, and when this happens the public is getting correct information.

  3. Hi George-Interesting read. I think journalism doesn’t so much need to punch back as suck less. Too often, engaging with the media resembles a drive-by shooting for a company. The reporter they’ve never heard of calls or comes to their door with a pre-conceived “narrative” that they are looking round out with a quote or sound-bite. When reporters aren’t really interested in what a company has to say why would a company be interested in talking to the media? A recent Gallup poll showed people’s trust in media at an all time low. This has far less to do with the influence of PR consultants than it does with what passes as journalism today.

  4. Hi Bill and David:
    No doubt journalism is in the throes of big changes. The focus on pumping out content rather than coherent news stories is one of the problems as has been the focus on lowering salaries (which has led to the practice of dumping veterans and hiring youngsters with no experience).

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