The State Of Journalism, How It Might Evolve, And How PR Can Help
The media industry and journalism are experiencing significant change. News outlets have been struggling for years to balance advertising, sponsored and editorial content. Additionally, a divisive political climate has given birth to biased and fake news outlets. The result is that the lines between opinion and news are becoming more and more blurred, and consumers of news are confused about which news outlets and stories to believe. This dynamic creates new and complicated challenges for journalists and PR pros, who may end up relying on each other now more than ever to save journalism.
We interviewed a few PR leaders in Boston to get their takes on journalism and changes we might see in 2017. The responses overwhelmingly highlighted that journalism is in danger, but that recent events may give way to a much-needed shift in how journalism is approached.
Bobbie Carlton, founder of Carlton PR & Marketing, Innovation Nights and Innovation Women says that “the 2016 presidential elections turned the media on its ear and soaked up a lot of time and attention. It also exhausted and depressed many of the reporters, editors and writers, leaving them less enthusiastic about their jobs, or conversely more fired-up to defend journalism. Fact-checking as an art and a science got a new lease on life.”
Erin D. Caldwell, director, Corporate Ink hopes that this renewed interest in fact-checking sparks more in-depth reporting, saying “I think there are a couple of things happening on the journalism front that are almost competing narratives. We’re seeing an incoming administration that’s more dismissive of media than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, which is scary and frustrating to anyone who believes in the importance of the free press in a democracy. Interestingly, though, there seems to be a positive backlash, especially from progressives, who are paying for more media now than they have in years, and rewarding good, thorough, diligent journalism. So, I think we’ll see these two struggles play out, as the administration fights to diminish, manipulate and use the media to its advantage, but the citizenry fights against that scenario and bolsters what was previously a struggling industry. Newspapers like the Washington Post are even beginning to hire staff again. Hopefully, we’ll see a shift to more thoughtful, long-form, investigative writing in 2017.”
The outrage over fake news may not only put a new emphasis on factual reporting, but create more transparency and purpose around types of content. Ian Bruce, VP corporate marketing at MongoDB says “Journalism is dying. It may be irreversible. Forget the implications for PR professionals – as citizens we should all be alarmed at the new era of fake news, fact-free reporting, unnews, etc. The fiction that content is free has horrible implications.”
Lora Kratchounova, Principal of Scratch Marketing + Media shares this sentiment, saying “the 4th estate is in jeopardy. There are various stats about how many actual journalists work for media publications vs. brand journalists, with the scales increasingly tipping toward the brand folks. Objective tech media reporting as we knew it is no longer the prevalent reality. Our definitions about journalism have been evolving – content marketing by brands is becoming more important than ever. For example, we did a study for one of our global clients who was looking to engage the global enterprise architect community. After doing some in-depth interviews with architects, we realized that the way to engage this community is by leveraging one of the company’s top IT executives via his blog. He had a rabid following on his blog and pretty much all of them followed it religiously. The reason? This executive gave them the straight good on every new announcement. Well-manicured messaging and press releases did not hold any appeal for them. This year this trend will continue – customers will continue to seek the genuine, true, expert perspective from companies and their leaders.”
If journalism is going to survive, and hopefully improve in 2017, we’ll all need to work together. PR pros and journalisms will have to keep each other honest and hold each other accountable for infractions. Michelle Barry, director, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry sympathizes with the conditions many reporters face, but hopes that journalists are inspired to influence change, noting “I’m a former journalist. There was a long time, after I made the switch to PR, where I missed the newsroom. I missed the excitement of a breaking story. I don’t have that anymore. I actually feel a lot of sympathy for reporters. The goal now isn’t to get the story right, it’s to get the story first – whether it’s right or wrong. They aren’t judged on their ability to write a strong, accurate story – they’re judged on page clicks and social shares. I understand why, but I also think that puts reporters in a really tough place.
How will the industry evolve? We’ve got a new president coming in who routinely throws reporters out of press conferences or sends his followers after reporters he doesn’t like or who have been critical of him. We’ve got, as I mentioned, fake news becoming more popular than real news. I think the media industry has no choice but to do some serious introspection right now – they have to fight back against this, do the legwork, investigate, push back, and get back to the fundamentals of journalism.”
What can PR and marketing pros do to help in the fight to save and improve journalism?
The burden for good journalism doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of reporters and news professionals. PR and marketing pros share in this responsibility. Here are a few ways you can help:
- Raise your news announcement standards. Before you consent to issuing a press release or engaging with a reporter about a news story, make sure that what you are sharing is truly newsworthy. We can’t expect reporters to do all the vetting – you have the ability to push back on clients or executives who might not be making objective decisions about company announcements.
- Avoid any statement that could be perceived as “alternative fact.” When companies want to make statements like “industry leader” or “first to market” or “the only company to do x” make sure you can back up the statement with proof. And make sure that the proof is credible, and not just nuanced in a way that is technically true.
- Clearly define and cite statistics. There is a difference between a statistic that represents the opinion of a certain group of people, versus statistics based on scientific or social experiments or academic research. Not only make this distinction clear when citing individual statistics, but also make sure that you clearly cite the overall methodology used to collect the data. This will help reporters trust you, as well as garner more trust from their readers because you’ve helped make the fact clear.
- Hold reporters accountable. If you have a relationship with a reporter and see that something has been misreported, let the reporter know. Back up the claim with reference material that helps clarify the error. Most of the time, reporters appreciate the help.
Will 2017 be the year that journalism makes a big comeback? We certainly hope so. Our society depends on the survival and credibility of the free press. And all of us in the media industry share the burden to raise our standards and foster trust.