Rob Martin, Agency Principal
I can remember the first time I read an editorial comment that had somehow crept into a news story. It was in TIME magazine sometime in the early 1980s. Since studying journalism in college and launching into my career in communications, I had always followed the newswriting style in TIME – casual yet factual – as the standard that I would try to mimic.
I don’t remember the specific story I was reading, but I do remember the moment of surprise I experienced. What was that I had read? The writer’s opinion? I probably passed it off at the time, but now I see that moment as eerily prescient. Today we live in a world where it would be difficult to find any news story that doesn’t have at least an element of editorial opinion inserted somewhere – if not in the actual copy, then in the headline, placement, or sources included to support the idea. It’s the world we have built and chosen for ourselves, and it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t profitable – or at least perceived to be a path to profitability – for the media companies that propagate it.
So is there still a role in this world for basic journalistic principles based on truth, fairness, accuracy and objectivity? I certainly think so. I hope so. Not only is journalism one of the cornerstones of our democracy, assuming the role of public witness for members of society, but we all can benefit from experiencing the thrill of reading a well-written and thoroughly researched piece.
In the public relations profession, good writing still counts, and I’m excited to see new young professionals who bring these skills to their work. Part of what we’re selling is quality, and you can’t argue with a well-written sentence or clever turn of phrase.
In fact, respecting the principles of journalism in our work can provide a number of benefits:
- Seeing multiple sides to a story
- Learning what is newsworthy and what isn’t
- Practicing objectivity and refining critical thinking skills
- Speaking the same “language” as the editors and reporters we interact with
- Adopting an approach to writing that is well suited to a variety of situations
- Appreciating the craft of the p.r. business, not just the mechanics of it
I do believe that opinion is now an important part of journalism as well, and informed consumers will recognize the difference. In creating content for our clients, we can leverage the benefits of various types of media content while staying true to our roots in journalism. Don’t throw out that AP Stylebook just yet!
Rob Martin, Agency Principal
We hear a lot about “fake news” these days. But what is it exactly?
Usually the term fake news may refer to a story that is patently false, having been fabricated out of thin air. But some stories that earn this label may actually contain an element of truth that has been misrepresented or exaggerated in a way to mislead or generate profit. Thinking in those terms, does our work in public relations – with a focus on the positive and promotional aspects of a client’s business – qualify as one form of fake news?
First, some background. You may think “fake news” is a relatively new phenomenon, having achieved prominent notice during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Only the term is new, but the concept is quite old. Did you know that Roman politician Mark Antony’s suicide in 30 BC was due in part to a misinformation campaign conducted by his political nemesis Octavian? And there are many other examples of fake news through the centuries, including major instances during both world wars of the 20th Century, and Benjamin Franklin’s fake news story about murderous Indians working with King George III during the American Revolution.
Now, what about the public relations profession today? It may be true that we hope to present a positive outlook in our work, but our output doesn’t have to look like total propaganda. There are many things we can do to ensure quality and fairness:
- Thoroughly check all facts to ensure accuracy.
- Remain transparent, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.
- Use multiple sources to support the story, including analysts, customers and other third parties.
- Recognize there are opposing viewpoints where possible.
- Make sure it is clear that the client is the source of the material.
Finally, when writing a story, we should always adhere to sound journalistic principles. That will be our topic for next week.