A Plea for Transparency and Ethical Codes

February 1, 2006 • Ethics and Quality • by

Message, Nr. 2, April, 2006

The current public debate on the influence of PR on journalism might be long overdue, but it is going in the wrong direction. On one side independent journalism, on the other, PR with its vested interests – the juxtaposition is just as artificial and passé as the opposite approach which is to deny any difference between the two (see the current attempts at self-promotion of Thomas Leif und his Netzwerk Recherche, a group of investigative journalists).

In reality, anyone working in journalism or PR can be characterised as a professional communicator, aka “content provider”, and hardly any freelance journalist will manage to make a living without accepting the odd PR assignment. The truth, however, is that journalism without PR has long become impossible, just as PR would lose much of its impact without the existence of a well-functioning journalism. Needless to say, there are great communicators and highly honourable professionals on either side – as well as black sheep and, frankly, quite a number of dimwits. In addition, both parties – PR experts as well as journalists and the media companies they work for – are sometimes guided by particular interests that don’t have much to do with public welfare, despite all (interested) claims to the contrary.

Therefore, let’s be grateful for the debate provoked by the journalists of Netzwerk – keeping in mind the following:

1) It is easily understandable that a group of investigative journalists would view PR and journalism as completely incommensurable, distinguishing much more strictly between the two than others would, in line with the group’s strict ethical code.

2) There is no point in arguing about one single such code. The more there are and the closer they are to the everyday reality of journalism, the better. Ideally, each editorial staff, occupational group and association of journalists and publishers should have their code made public, so that their adherence to them can be controlled at any time.

Journalism, as well as the media in general, has long become structurally dependent on PR input. Both sides need each other. And this interdependence is likely to persist for one simple economic reason: no one – including most journalists – is holding information as dearly (i.e. is willing to pay for it as much) as they should. A quality paper still costs less than a “cup of Joe” at Starbucks. That’s why journalism sees a downswing when those advertising bucks are not coming anymore or, worse still, when the companies paying for ads decide to re-shuffle their budgets with the intention of spending more on PR than on advertising.

Conversely, companies, institutions and many individuals are obviously very keen, in terms of the money invested, on hiring PR professionals who create a public image for them, a highly positive one, of course – which explains the sector’s current boom.

What is needed, therefore, is transparency. If journalists would disclose how much they actually depend on money from the PR sector, they certainly could bolster their credibility by making existing mutual dependencies visible. This would then give the public a chance to know what kind of people a given journalist creates publicity for, who gets paid or invited to business trips by whom, etc.

More attention is therefore needed for point 6 of the ethical code of Netzwerk: “Journalists must reject any favours and benefits offered to them.“ But, again, we are dealing with a noble principle that springs too much from the perspective of journalists-cum-public servants working for national broadcasters, enjoying cosily permanent positions that make them unsurprisingly free to ignore the realities of the marketplace. In that marketplace, it might be added, not even broadcasters as respected as Germany’s ARD and ZDF observe such strict rules – underscoring, again, how little the Netzwerk code is fit for the real world. Not even point 8 is really observed – at least not in the German-speaking world: “Journalists must (…), if necessary, correct their reports as soon as new facts become available”. This is a real shame, given how many such voluntary corrections would help journalists almost effortlessly win back some of the credibility they have lost over the years.

Message, 2/2006, p. 81

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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