Letter to the editor: Three things that don’t stand up in Basen’s column on journalists and public relations
By Paul Knox
Readers will make up their own minds about Ira Basen’s contention that all journalists should study public relations. But here are three things in Basen’s recent J-Source piece that don’t stand up:
1. “Most [journalism students] will wind up working in some form of PR after they graduate.” At Ryerson University, the evidence points in the opposite direction. We’ve been able to track the occupations of about three-quarters of those who’ve graduated from our j-programs over the past 20 years. Those currently practicing journalism outnumber those in PR and communications by three to one. For the past five years the ratio is about six to one. The census figure Basen cites – that three times as many Canadians work in PR as in journalism – is a poor indicator of potential j-grad outcomes, since both occupations attract people from many educational backgrounds. Highly publicized news from traditional newsrooms about buyouts of long-serving employees obscures the fact that the same organizations are hiring at the entry level. New digital platforms, startups and non-profits create more openings. Yes, things are tough and uncertain – but to say a career in PR awaits most journalism grads is simply incorrect.
Related content on J-Source:
- Opinion: Why all journalists should study public relations
- Journalism Spin: How (somehow) everybody wins with the NADbank figures
- Why shouldn’t newsrooms work with the marketing department?
2. “Most journalism schools don’t like to talk to their students about public relations.” Also unsupported by evidence, this statement ought to sit like a burr in the sock of every reporting teacher in the land. “In my class,” Basen writes, “I try to get students to think about why you sometimes do have to look a gift horse in the mouth and ask questions about your sources such as ‘why are they telling me this?’” Very good, but if they’ve taken a course from me, that won’t be a new thought. They’ll have heard about blasting through messaging strategies, spotting weasel words and asking what’s missing in official statements. They’ll have been shown how to make their writing reportorial, not promotional. They’ll have been encouraged to be what Basen calls warriors against spin. I can’t imagine not doing this. Why on earth would I think, as Basen suggests other journalism teachers do, that it would make my students “impure?” Just because it isn’t a separate course doesn’t mean we don’t deal with it.
3. The suggestion that “leakers” and “PR people” are synonymous. Basen suggests that the smearing of Maher Arar by unnamed intelligence sources in conversations with reporters was a manifestation of the complex relationship between public relations and journalism, a relationship he portrays as symbiotic. Maybe he knows the names of Arar’s defamers (I don’t), and maybe they’re PR people. But it’s much more plausible that, as with the disinformation in Washington in 2003 about weapons of mass destruction, the leaking originated with doers, not spinners. Why is the distinction important? Because you don’t have to be in public relations to have reasons for misleading reporters. And when deception becomes public policy, practiced by office-holders and decision-makers, it’s a far bigger issue than spin. Moreover, motive is part of every story; a good reporter ponders everyone’s motives, whether PR people are involved or not. That’s why we talk about motives and reporter-source relationships in reporting courses, and ethics courses, and history courses, and probably in some I don’t even know about.
In his teaching and his journalism, Ira Basen does a great job of raising awareness among journalists about the science of public relations, its history and its techniques. He sounds an important alarm about the colonization of news via branded content, native advertising and other marketing ploys. He undermines these efforts when he makes undocumented generalizations about journalism schools and imputes non-existent motives to teachers who care as much as he does about the integrity of published news.
Paul Knox, associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University, worked in daily newspapers for many years as a reporter, editor, columnist, foreign correspondent and manager.