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Crossing the Line: When Journalists Write PR

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Under the Bush Administration, the USDA has come under scrutiny for several questionable practices. Before grassroots organizations concerned with the processing of beef and the possibility of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (better known as mad cow disease) transmission pointed out the practice of hiring former lobbyists for national beef organizations as staff members.

Now it seems the USDA has made journalists into lobbyists. According to an 11 May 2005 article in the Washington Post written by Christopher Lee, a USDA agency paid a journalist to write articles to promote one of its programs. What could be better than that? A freelance journalist gets to write for the government about the government with access as permitted by that government agency and then sell that article. So basically the journalist gets paid to do research and attempt to sell the article and then gets paid by the publication.

According to the Washington Post article the freelancer, Dave Smith, a wonderful name for someone who will no doubt not want to be attached to this scandal in the future, was paid $7,500. He was paid by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to describe the wonderful benefits of their farm bill programs on wildlife habitat and the environment.

He was contracted in September 2003, and the information was acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, meaning that neither Smith nor the NRCS gave out this information willingly. He was contracted to write five stories for $1,875 each and he was then to “contact and work magazine editors to place the articles in targeted publications.” Those publications would be hunting and fishing magazines who now claim no knowledge of the deal Smith had with the USDA.

Smith was a bit cagey with the Washington Post journalist, saying he was paid “between $7,500 and $7,800 on the contract, but the total could have been as much as $9, 375.”

This, of course, is nothing to the $241,000 that commentator Armstrong Williams was paid by the Education Department for promoting Bush’s education policy or the $21,500 columnist Maggie Gallagher was paid by the Department of Health and Human Services was paid to promote the president’s marriage initiative. After these disclosures were made earlier this year, President Bush said the government would no longer pay journalists to promote his programs and yet he hasn’t revealed how much public monies went to pay journalists to be his lobbyists.

The greater problem, of course, is that journalists are supposed to provide objective and unbiased accounts of news filtered through their own personal socio-political and cultural biases. They are generally paid poorly for doing so. PR people, lobbyists and journalist all work with words and are, at heart, wordsmiths. Yet there is a line that separates journalists and PR and lobbyists and without a degree of separation how can the public view journalists and their words without suspicion? People who are paid to be spokespersons for policies or products should be clearly labeled as such. They shouldn’t masquerade as journalists.

If journalists, freelance and staff begin regularly taking money to promote events—and these three obviously didn’t feel it was wrong to do so—then where will the public find the real news? On blogs? In the alternative press that struggles to survive and pays little to almost nothing? This is poor reward for integrity and the public should get a full accounting of just how much of our tax dollars are spent on PR.

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  • Matt Sussman

    >He was contracted to write five stories for $1,875 each and he was then to “contact and work magazine editors to place the articles in targeted publications.”<

    I read that and laughed. It gave me this whimsical image of a big bad writer coming in and browbeating an unsuspecting editor who gives up and says “OK, you mean man, we’ll print it as long as you give me back my lunchbox!”

    The editor’s job is to be more ruthless than the reader. If they don’t believe the story is accurate, it goes to the wastebasket without a bat of an eye.

    Meanwhile, public relations is another important body of work in the field of journalism, and the government should be allowed to practice it as much as the next corporation. It’s not propganda. It’s not lying to the public. It’s not cheap advertising. It’s a very creative way to promote themselves. If they were to instead run an ad campaign, I can guarantee it would cost them more than $7,500.

    And if you want to talk about blogs becoming the new source of news, think again because bloggers are even more suspectible to outside contributions because blogs aren’t as profitable as other forms of writing.

    All that’s at stake here is dangerous is the reputation of the journalist. If he does this, he’ll get a scarlet letter on his chest that says “I am for sale.” Only the world of journalism is indirectly hurt by losing the objective angle from a potentially great writer.

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    I don’t see PR as being in the same field as journalism. The school I went to made this a separate field of study.

    The Annenberg School of Communication at USC separates journalism, communication and PR studies. They do not see PR as a branch or discipline within journalism. They also require journalism students to take a course in ethics.

    Blogs have already become a source of information, notably the Drudge Report, the Smoking Gun and some recent war blogs. Also blogs have given information about recent disasters such as the tsunami in Asia.

    As with all media, one should check one’s sources to see if they are reliable.

    An editor would like to know if a writer is on the parole of any organization before accepting an article. This was not disclosed.
    This was an ethnical problem and the magazines concerned see it as such.

    Accuracy is one thing, Honesty is another. The writer was a paid spokesperson for the USDA and should have identified himself as such.

    Obviously, there is a greater need for classes in ethics.

  • Nancy

    It is propaganda and lying when public tax funds are used to pay for commentary that is supposed to be unbiased and objective, but in fact is nothing but pimping, regardless of which party is doing it.

    If you can’t tell the difference, you seriously need to take immediate courses in ethics – and then take them to heart.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    Hey, it was a good deal for the writer: he got paid twice, most likely. Once to write the puff pieces in the first place and then again when he sold them to the targeted publications.

    Of course, in the long run, he sold his credibility for a few thousand bucks. But whatever.

  • Matt Sussman

    Purple Tigress,

    I know some schools do, but the one I went to — Bowling Green State University, one of only three accredited journalism programs in Ohio — the three sequences are print, broadcast and public relations. Even if they are separated, the two bodies of work have many similarities as I have taken classes in both PR and print.

    And Nancy, by your logic if the government uses PR to “lie” about their programs all public relations are “lying.” And any corporation or nonprofit organization that sends a press release is lying. Anytime you publicly speak good of the company you work for is lying.

    And besides we’re talking about the USDA here. Beef, the last time I checked, isn’t that controversial.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    I never took any classes in PR, Matt. I think you need to investigate the subject a little more than your own experience, though you did not say that you were attending the J-department

    The professors are different, the classes are different, the greeks and the clubs are different.

    And all three branches you mentioned we had as well. They were all in the “communications” department – which is typical – not the “journalism” department

    Other large colleges have journalism “schools” and though I’m sure a few exist, most do not include PR.

    My main degree is in print journalism, with a minor in political science.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Oh and Matt – the government isn’t a company. There are taxpayers involved – also known as the American people. The government is not a company in that it has the ability to change ALL THE RULES; therefore it must operate by different rules.

    You make it sound like the government needs no ethics or rules and it is up to us to sort it all out. Does that sound right?

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    Beef is controversial.

    Means of slaughter and possible transmission of disease like BSE has come under question. People in the UK and Europe did die of CJD variant.

    Use of hormones in beef cattle has brought considerable protest in Europe.

    Cattle and government owned land is another topic that has some controversy around it.

    The topic the person wrote about wasn’t beef, to be clear. However, organizations have criticized the USDA for hiring former lobbyists from national beef organizations.

    One example is Organic Consumers.

    Separate and similar are not the same. I believe that’s what one would be learning in an ethics course.

  • Matt Sussman

    I’m not arguing what ethics are. It’s important to not lie. Duh.

    And lying in PR is bad business, just like it is in any profession. So if Smith lied in his report, then it’s obviously bad. But since I didn’t read his story, I’m not debating that.

    But many of you seem to be saying the government should be doing this at all.

    Well, why not? Because they’re funded by the people? So should all government agencies be silent until the media decides to write about them?

    If I know my media, they will probably report on the big important stuff, including scandals and corruption, making people cynical towards the government. Stories about mundane day-to-day operations will put people to sleep better than NyQuil.

    Enter public relations.

    That’s the main function if PR firms. They get their client’s name out there for the greater consumer good. And since this is our government, it’s doubly important they do this so we know what they’re up to.

    And it is this point at which we disagree. How should government departments send their message to the people that provide their budget? Writing a news release story? An ad campaign? Or do nothing until a newspaper takes the initiative to write about it?

    And don’t automatically assume a news release is a lie just because it’s from the government.

    Finally (and this is information Temple is probably interested in knowing) I graduated with a journalism minor and all majors and minors are required to take a 400-level class, “Journalism Law & Ethics,” in which I received an A.

    So I’ll retake it if you’d like, but you all have to promise to take a PR class. :-)

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    A press release is not objective. When a company or other entity releases a statement to the press, everyone knows that the source is presenting a one-sided piece of information. It’s then up to others to evaluate and analyze that information.

    The way I see the Washington Post presenting it is that the freelancer was hired to write PR pieces and place them as objective “stories” in publications that would target the desired audience. Those stories were pitched to the publications with no mention of the freelancer’s arrangement with the USDA. Had he made his connection clear, the publications probably would have rejected the stories outright or labeled them PR [in some fashion]. Instead, the stories were published without clarification that the writer was on the payroll of the USDA.

    It’s purchased PR deliberately prentending to be news.

    That’s unethical. It’s not even a grey area.

  • Nancy

    The problem, Matt, is that you may have taken an ethics class, but it doesn’t seem to have made much impression, beyond teaching you to think and argue semantics. You obviously didn’t imbibe the point of it all, just the technicalities to enable you to argue slickly and use ‘spin’ – which leads me to believe you’re actually a practicing Karl Rove wannabe…altho he is a prime example of shameless lack of ethics in any arena of thinking. But I digress.

    You also haven’t been following the news much, to say beef isn’t controversial, as PT points out. Haven’t heard of the Canadian bovine spongiform aka mad cow controversy, or the Japan/US beef problems, in addition to those mentioned by PT?

    Getting down to very basic, plain English: US law says using tax money to pay people to say nice things about your administration’s policies is a no. It isn’t an option. US law also says if you take money from someone to say nice things about them, you are no longer a journalist, you are a hack, and you are obligated to the public to let everyone know you are paid to say nice things. This is also not an option. Completing the logic, if you take money from someone to say nice things about them, but you don’t tell anyone about it and meanwhile you pretend you’re saying nice things because you really believe what you’re writing, you have violated ethics (which are voluntary) and the law (which is not). I really don’t know how to make this any more basic for you.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    >>It is propaganda and lying when public tax funds are used to pay for commentary that is supposed to be unbiased and objective, but in fact is nothing but pimping, regardless of which party is doing it.<<

    This is fundamentally untrue. There is no guarantee that unpaid for writing is unbiased and objective, and the fact that it has been paid for doesn’t mean that it’s untrue, just that someone felt it wouldn’t get written if they didn’t hire someone to do it.

    I have a long history of experience with both writing for and editing industry magazines, and one thing I know intimately is that a great many of the articles certain types of magazines publish are essentially PR for companies which hire writers like Smith to write them and then submit them to the magazines. In some cases it’s even more blatant. Certain magazines actually won’t publish articles unless they are submitted to them by or on behalf of their advertisers and are specifically linked to products advertised in the magazines. This makes those magazines essentially ALL advertising and PR. And the interesting thing is that it doesn’t necessarily make them bad magazines to read.

    That the USDA should do this is NOT inappropriate. It may be the only way they could get coverage in certain industry magazines, and whether you believe it or not, they DO have an obligation to publicize and make people aware of their programs.

    If you want to see this practice at work, go check out some fan magazines for hunting, firearms, fishing, comic books or games. Many of the major magazines in these industries are entirely filled with shill articles and the editors know and even encourage it.

    And don’t blame the writers. It’s hard as hell to make a living as a writer and if you can get a guaranteed paycheck or even a double paycheck then you’re luckier than 99% who take a crack at professional writing. Remember, editors still look at and approve these articles, so the responsibility rests with them and the editorial policies of the magazine.

    Also, think of this. When we write articles here on BC we often get free review materials, tickets to concerts and other perks. Are we being bribed to porvide good coverage? We’re small potatoes. Think of the perks someone like P. J. O’Rourke gets for writing for Road and Track, like all expense paid trips to the Mercedes plant in Bavaria, a free $20K Ducati motorcycle, etc. (all documented in his writing, btw). Don’t you think those things make him kindly inclined towards the subject he’s writing on?

    And I have to make a point again that I’ve made before. If private industry can hire people to write PR pieces for them to get them into the media, then government agencies with something to sell ought to have the same right. Hell, some of them – like the Department of the Interior and the Smithsonian – publish their own magazines promoting themselves to the public.

    Dave

  • Matt Sussman

    I suppose beef is controversial, but maybe that’s only because PETA hired a free lance writer to write fake news against it :-)

  • gonzo marx

    the big deal when it comes to the Ethics of the matter here revolves around clearly stating the SOURCE of any such Article or VNR..

    it can be illustrated clearly by the Armstrong Williams case..

    he was paid to advocate a certain position by the government…no problem in and of itself

    in his own column he does so, without stating that he was on the payroll of a government agency…the articles appeared as if they were his own editorial Opinion…which they may very well have been…but by not stating that he was paid for it, he violated the Ethics of the publication he was working for…add into it his rounds on the political talk show circuit espousing this position….he got paid for these appearances with the understanding that he was expressing his own Editorial viewpoint…instead he was shilling the position he was paid for

    this case, and the whole VNR fiasco each share the same foible…appearing as an actual news release, but instead being a PR piece deceptively disguised as “news”

    the difference here and with what Mr. Nalle quotes is that in most cases those magazines and newspapers clearly show in the by-line that “so and so is a writer for

    this clears the ethical hurdle by informing the Reader of the writers bias and source

    pretty clear cut and kind of sums up the difference between news reporting and propaganda, eh?

    Excelsior!

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    PETA has writers, however, PETA is not the only organization writing about the problems with beef. So let’s not make a blanket statement and insult all those writers who have challenged the government and its policies, pointing out possible conflicts of interests and improprieties. This is, supposedly, the mission of the press.

    A writer, David Smith, should make clear what kind of affiliation he had to both the readers and the editors.

    Reviewers for certain publications are not allowed to review performances, books, etc. by their relatives, friends or family. The ethical standards vary from publication to publication. It is best however if one can avoid a conflict of interest for reasons of integrity.

    Reviewers are not paid well if they are paid at all. For this reason, books, tickets, etc. are complimentary and that the disgression of the venue. They do not have to write positively and, that being so, may not be invited/welcomed back. A review may be paid $25 to review a $40 play or book.

    Writers who hide connections/conflicts of interests are not considered ethical.

    The writer in question, David Smith, now works for the governmental agency, NRCS, that paid him.

  • Yosef Simen

    Consumers of any product (whether it’s news or a physical consumable or tool or whatever) have a right to know what they’re getting.

    If the government buys an ad, or has a spiffy booklet printed, that lays out all the amazing work it’s doing (as the NIH has done, I picked it up at the Pharmacy department lounge at Rutgers University), that’s fine, no problems there. Everyone knows what marketing material looks like and knows to be wary of the content.

    But should a journalist print such a thing without specifying, somewhat prominently, that this was sponsored, paid for or even written by a government agency, that’s a problem. PR’s okay, but you have a right to know the difference between PR and actual news reporting.

    We trust our reporters to be reliable, at least, if not always accurate. We should expect accuracy too, but that might be too much to ask from certain ideologically motivated reporters or editors.

    When a reporter or editor prints a government ad as if it were news, that’s a problem – the reporter or editor responsible should be fired, or at least face the wrath of the market. However, the government agent responsible for initiating contact between his agency and the journalist should be crucified – we rely on the government to be impartial and honest even more than we rely on journalists.

  • http://Murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    It would be nice to believe that our government is honest and impartial, however, part of the job of ethnical journalists and part of the reason the freedom of speech was written into the Bill of Rights is to insure that the government stays honest because we know that government has a tendency to become dishonest or biased.

    For this reason, we need journalists to be ethical in their practices. There is a time for positive pieces and a time for critical pieces. However, if one is paid by one organization to write about an organization that is also paying you, that would clearly be a conflict of interest. The above discussion has shown that not everyone believes there exists a conflict of interest and that is, perhaps, part of the problem.