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Publicist, journalist, or something in-between?

Meet the pressJournalists and publicists have historically viewed each other in the same way that Democrats and Republicans in Congress do – with a healthy dose of mistrust, peppered by a begrudging acknowledgment that they need to work together. However, the chasm between the two fields appears to be narrowing as journalists are increasingly finding ways to continue being reporters within communication and PR departments that fall outside the realm of traditional journalism and PR.

Unlike the PR positions of past, however, these journalists are being passed off as hard-hitting beat reporters able to cover the organization they work for without bias. According to a recent article in The Oregonian, former Hillsboro-Argus staff writer Nick Christensen was recently hired by the Portland, Ore., city government (Metro) communications department to serve as a beat reporter covering the agency’s activities for its website – with the hope of engaging the public and amping up coverage that has dwindled as other area newspaper staffs have shrunk. Christensen’s articles purport to be objective in their reportage and contain a header that says: “This story was not subject to the approval of Metro staff or elected officials. Its content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Metro staff or councilors.” However, the agency’s head of communications takes what he describes in the Oregonian article as an editorial role in monitoring the content of the stories and admits that Christensen’s job is “definitely public relations.” Perhaps it should be called journalism relations, a new field made up of merging roles.

Metro is not alone in this practice of employing a professional reporter to cover its internal activities and boost its public image in the process.  Intel, Major League Baseball, the Vancouver Olympics, various NHL teams, the prime minister of Japan, Stanford University and an L.A. County supervisor are among those who have done so in the recent past. Stephen J. A. Ward, a professor of journalism ethics at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism, called this practice “worrisome” in an e-mail interview. “How objective and independent can journalists be if they are paid to write by the government? Who picks the stories, the story angles? What are the editorial processes that protect journalists from undue influence?” he asked.

Christensen addressed some of these questions in an e-mail interview. “I approach my job the same way I did while I was covering Metro for the Hillsboro-Argus – cultivate sources, find the best information and report it,” said Christensen. “Does that mean I am still a journalist? In my mind, yes, but I understand how others are uncomfortable with that term. At the same time, I know that the communications manager thinks of this as public relations. In a literal sense, it is – I am getting information to the public and improving the transparency of the agency. But much like ‘journalism’ has a specific meaning in peoples’ minds, so does ‘public relations’ – fairly or unfairly, it conjures images of spin. That’s not my role.”

As for the editorial process at Metro, Christensen denies that Metro staff has “carte blanche to spike a story,” but said that he encourages them to come to him with issues. “If they think I have something wrong, explain to me what they think I messed up and how.” He noted it’s common for reporters at other outlets to use quotes from his stories in pieces that they’re writing on the same subject. Beyond this, he said, some outlets have re-printed his articles in part or in full, without attribution, as they might do with a press release.

If media jobs and resources continue to shrink, we may see public relations and journalism becoming even more closely entwined in the future – as in the Metro case. Christensen hopes this trend continues, at least when it comes to public organizations. “My hope is that other governments in other cities facing similar communications issues will consider this – and think about appropriate oversight for it. Without scrutiny, both from within and outside an agency, there’s a serious risk that the project could, justifiably or not, lose the trust of the news consumers.”

–Katrina Wolfe

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