“It ain’t necessarily so.” *
Sadly, this week we’ve learned that we will now have to be extra alert when seeking out news:
Here’s why: the alarming headline of just-published New York Times detailed investigative report that reveals a national visceral assault on journalist transparency and authenticity:
As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in its Place
“Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals,a Times investigation found.
“The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets… But behind the scenes many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or company, or to smear their rivals… The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers [clients]. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should ask to talk and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.”
In addition to being an an assault on the journalism profession (and the public relation profession) there are career and psychological setbacks for the hired writers.
The network reportedly hires mainly freelance or laid off journalists to write stories tailored by the “story watchers'” which appear without identification of sponsors. Some of the journalists expressed remorse to The Times. “Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce…[one] said she had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.” Having been laid off she lamented, “You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you judge people for doing it. And then you’re just in the exact position.”
Public relations practitioners participating in this “dark journalism” are doing a great dis-service to their profession – which has been, and is currently, battling disinformation on many fronts. The Public Relations Society of America is a leader in that confrontation.
Next week, disinformation will be a central issue addressed at PRSA’s 2020 International (ICON) virtual conference [link ] . “The Information War” will be the subject of a keynote session and a breakout session, “The DISinformation Disaster: PR Unites to PRE-BUNK and Fight the Threats to Lives and Democracy”, will follow.
Earlier this year, PRSA sounded a warning on the extreme dangers of disinformation related to the COVID-19: “How Communicators Can Help the Public during COVID-19 Crisis”.
Actually,the organization’s commitment to ethical communications by all its members – manifested in its ethical code – can be traced at least as far back as 2005. In May of that year, Judith Phair, PRSA President and CEO, testified before the U.S. House Committee in Commerce, Science and Transportation on the production of video news releases:
“… a subject of paramount concern to us: ensuring the free flow of information from government to citizens that is the hallmark of our democracy … To foster open communications leading to informed decision-making we must reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented and disclose all financial interests related to the VNR.”
The mission then and now: Authentic, reliable news.
- “Porgy and Bess”, Gershwins’ 1935 opera