Taking Sides – PR vs. Journalism

Though I’m very proud to say I have a master’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Mass Communication and Journalism, my field of public relations does not really have a place there.

First of all, the school isn’t willing to dedicate the time and energy to develop the program. Mostly however, it is because the ethics and principles that guide public relations professionals are very different from that of a journalist. The program would be better suited in the business school along with marketing and advertising because the writing style and tactics we employ are far removed from journalism.

I remember sitting in my required Media Ethics class as a master’s student and always feeling so out of place. The issues we discussed and cases we debated always confused me. Often times I was left playing devil’s advocate because I didn’t understand why my colleagues would leave out this information or that picture. While interesting, the class was completely useless to me because the writing I do seeks to persuade and sell, not to inform. I don’t have to separate passion out of my work. In fact, it is that very characteristic that makes many PR professionals so good at their jobs.

While many journalists make the leap from writing articles to writing pitches over the course of their career, there is a reason it is very difficult to do the reverse. I pride myself on being passionate about getting the message of local nonprofits out to the community – I’ve made my name on it. That same passion prevents me from being able to provide an objective view, such as with the “Perfectly Legal” series the AZ Republic published about nonprofits back in May.

This is a sensitive issue in both fields. It’s a huge gray area that includes the on-going debate over blogging versus journalism. No one wants to be viewed as biased or unethical. I myself have struggled over the distinction since my move into this field nearly two years ago.

For example, I currently write for the Downtown Phoenix Journal. This online publication is a mix of articles and blogs about local events in Phoenix. The editorial policy makes a distinction between blog writers and article writers. Once one has “chosen a side”, they are not permitted to write for the other. I am a blog writer – my articles use that voice and in no way seek to objectively view an issue, such as with my post about Over Easy not being permitted to stay open for a charity event.

I think sites such as Examiner.com walk a fine line between news and PR. If you read in their Terms of Use Agreement under #11, Examiner.com explains that it does not edit the site, nor hold itself accountable for the content posted – yet, it touts itself as a news source. This scares me, especially since they have a family and parenting section. What disclaimer or rules are in place to prevent a post from an “examiner” hailing the efficiency of some new parenting product they received for free and calling it news? Or what prevents the “examiner” from sharing a personal opinion about the health of child without consulting an expert and claiming it’s an article?

I’ve been asked to write for the examiner.com by several people. I decline because of the haziness between news and opinion. I’m not comfortable putting on a reporter’s hat when I have a PR mind sitting underneath, no matter how different the topics may be. Anything can become a conflict of interest at any time.

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  1. Tyler, I’m well aware of what the First Amendment says. Since everything is perfectly black-and-white in your world, where does someone who works in PR draw the line? Since everything they do *must* be darkened with the contamination of their work, are they allowed to write letters to the editor? Restaurant reviews on Yelp?

    I’d say the majority of Phx Mag’s people who work in PR are doing their readers a disservice.

    The majority? Why not *all* of them, Tyler? Who gets off the hook in your world?

    Just because you and your friends do it doesn’t make it okay.

    I do? *laughs* Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good tirade, now…

    Hey, did you by chance grow up Evangelical? Not a slam, just a genuine question…

  2. Oops.

    …but I’ve read questionable health articles on Examiner.com and in The Arizona Republic.

  3. I agree w/Abbie. Not going to comment any further, because I think this is an endless debate.

    I write for Examiner.com. Though it says we do not have editors, we do have channel managers. They are our “editors,” and frequently comment/coach us on our writing.

    To the point that examiners might provide false advice that puts a child in harms way, I will turn that comment back to journalists of all communication platforms. Fact-checking is so so important, but I’ve read q

  4. Stacy – what first amendment right are you referring to? It’s a matter of trust, not censorship. Amazing how so many people don’t actually understand what censorship even is.

    I’d say the majority of Phx Mag’s people who work in PR are doing their readers a disservice. Just because you and your friends do it doesn’t make it okay.

  5. Tough question. With shrinking newsrooms and the proliferation of online communications, public relations practitioners are often called upon to provide the news content. “News by you” articles, bylines, etc. are often written by PR people on behalf of their clients or companies.

    For me it comes down to transparency — if we clearly define what and who we are representing then I think both the pr practitioner and the journalist can exist “under the same hat.”

    Katie – good piece, will be interested to see other responses.

  6. A whole slew of Phoenix Magazine’s contributors work in PR. Lots of PR people contribute political columns to the Republic. I don’t think there’s a completely clear line that has to separate the two professions — take it on a case-by-case basis. If the pitched story/column is advancing the PR firm or their clients, it’s a conflict of interest. Otherwise, PR professionals do not give up their First Amendment rights as people just because they took on their profession’s mantle.


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