A colleague of mine called attention recently to a curious arrangement of roles in Portland, Oregon, and it raises questions about what we call things in the context of public relations ethics.
Nick Christensen, who previously covered the government entity known as The Metro, has taken as job working for The Metro as its in-house writer. Now Mr. Christensen is hardly the first journalist to jump ship and take a job with an organization he previously covered. What’s different here, though, is that The Metro is having him write material that looks curiously like actual news stories.
Is The Metro trying to deceive people into thinking that PR copy is actually objective news reporting? Here’s how they explain it:
Articles with bylines are written with a goal of objectivity. The bylined writers strive for fair reporting that tells several sides of a story, improves Metro’s transparency and makes it easier to understand the decisions we face.
- Stories with bylines involve original reporting and research. If we didn’t hear a quote from a person directly, we’ll tell you how we got it.
- We are guided by the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.
- We are committed to fairness and accuracy. If you think we’ve made a mistake or left out an important point of view, tell us.
- Our goal is to make information easier to understand. If it still doesn’t make sense, let us know.
So the principle, it would seem, is that you as the reader should distinguish between pure propaganda and objective reporting whenever you see a byline.
The traditionalist in me doesn’t like this, but we do have to recognize that the media world is changing and there is some precedent for arrangements like this. The official web site of Major League Baseball employs reporters to cover each team, and like The Metro, the web site asserts that the reporters’ stories are not subject to the approval of MLB.
The reporting itself usually tends to bear that out. Many of these reporters actually break news and report scoops about the teams they cover, sometimes undermining the timing of planned press conferences and official announcements. They cover player controversies. They deal forthrightly with fan unrest. Sometimes you will see a report saying that officials of a given team “would not confirm or deny” a report that is on its own web site!
I guess MLB figures no one will read their news coverage if it’s blatant propaganda fluff, so they give their reporters some latitude to really cover the news. It seems to work to a point, but at the end of the day, these reporters still know who pays their salaries. If they ever had to deal with a serious speak-truth-to-power type story, would they do it?
Yeah, I’m not so sure either.
And The Metro is not Major League Baseball. It’s a governmental body and it’s supposed to be answerable to the people. In my mind, that makes it a little more urgent that labels and impressions be accurate. It may very well be that Mr. Christensen tries to play it straight, do good reporting and put the readers’ need to know first on his priority list. But he knows who pays his salary too.
If he were labeled “spokesman” instead of “reporter,” the whole proposition would seem a little more honest. That’s what the PRSA Member Code of Ethics disclosure provision recommends. Reminding the reader who you answer to is the best way to ensure your own accountability, and that’s really what ethics in this business is all about.
Ann Willets is president & CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc. Ann has over two decades of experience conducting successful public relations campaigns in a variety of industries. She has worked in both large and small agency environments as well as in a corporate setting. In the course of her career, Ann has managed public relations/marketing communication programs for a variety of clients, garnering over 26 prestigious national awards. Ann currently serves as a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. You can follow Ann on Twitter @AnnWillets.
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