Investigation or PR-steering?

February 14, 2003 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, February 14, 2003

How German journalists report on the work of Parliament
To what extent do public relations (PR) influence journalism? This question has been discussed intermittently but fiercely by communication scientists since the eighties. According to Dresden’s media researchers, Wolfgang Donsbach and Arnd Wenzel, the fact that PR do not have as much effect as other researchers have assumed up to now (Publizistik, Heft 4/2002, S. 373-387) can be shown empirically.

Using the example of several Saxonian newspaper reports on parliamentary work in that state’s assembly, scientists have been able to show that only a quarter of the relevant reports can be traced back to press releases from the parliamentary parties – and that conversely only 28 percent of the PR-reports offered are taken up by the media. PR people produce a lot for the waste-paper basket. However, those who produce more, often receive more than average coverage.

Over a third of the press releases were edited by journalists extensively to very extensively Public relations in the political field does not automatically restrict journalism’s own investigation either, as one of the fathers of media science, Emil Dovifat, was already postulating in the twenties. In over two thirds of the reports in which press releases were used, the editors added further information. Journalists also do not heighten controversies – on the contrary, particularly “negative, aggressive press releases” are very often shortened, watered down or supplemented with further information.

While a “high professional standard” of press communication does not increase the probability of publication, the political line of the respective newspaper does have an influence on the selection of press releases: the material of the “preferred”, and hence politically closer parliamentary group, is used in articles “alone and without representation of the opposition’s position more frequently”.

At any rate, with their study, Donsbach and Wenzel have been able to show how political PR and journalism affect each other. It emerges clearly, however, that there is a hierarchy among those who operate in PR. The concept that press work is only relatively effective should not be generalized superficially from coverage of state assemblies. As a rule important political decisions are not made in parliamentary work on the regional level, but elsewhere. On the other hand, the need to profile the state parliament delegate is particularly strong, and for this reason it can be assumed that parliamentary groups produce a “surplus” of press releases on unimportant topics. Therefore Donsbach/Wenzel’s study somewhat reduces the impact of earlier research work. But this research, according to which the influence of PR on journalism is much greater in other reporting fields – for example, government-PR or enterprise communication – has not lost its validity. Besides, as Donsbach and Wenzel demonstrate, press releases are only one instrument in the PR-arsenal. It is therefore no coincidence that over the last few years the instruments available in public relations have become more sophisticated.

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