Public relations is an 'integral component of the media landscape' and journalists should be more transparent in their dealings with the industry, a major new report says.
What's Happening to Our News, due out this week, is published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
More than 70 influential media figures - journalists, academics, MPs and regulators - were interviewed for the research. It comes almost a year after Guardian journalist Nick Davies' controversial book Flat Earth News, in which he accuses PR of subverting the media agenda (PRWeek, 8 February 2008).
The new report echoes Davies' claims, stating that many journalists view PR as 'a cancer eating away at the heart of modern journalism'. However, it outlines the benefits of PR, pointing out that journalists are under an increasing amount of pressure and that PR can become an external source of newsgathering.
It highlights how crucial PR is to informing the public about the activities of charities and NGOs. It also explains how PR can disseminate key messages from specialist organisations, such as academia and science labs, to the public.
But the report argues that as PR begins to play an increasingly important role in the UK media, journalists need to identify when material is sourced from PR, because the 'private interests of PR may collide with the public interest of objective reporting'. It suggests journalists should be sceptical about the authenticity of PR-generated stories because of PR agencies' financial ties to their clients. It contends also that industry regulation could help minimise the risk of a 'serious misalignment between the private interests of PR clients and the public interests of society'.
The report is authored by Andrew Currah, an Oxford University lecturer specialising in digital economy and the future of the internet.
30k - Number of media-facing professionals in the UK
£6bn - Amount generated by the UK PR sector each year
70 - Key players in the UK media interviewed for the report
2008 - Year that Nick Davies' Flat Earth News was published
VIEW OF PR INDUSTRY
Extracts from What's Happening to Our News:
The PR industry is remarkably diverse in its activities, agenda and outputs, and has a series of benefits. It is through PR that activities of charities and non-governmental organisations are disseminated to the public: for example, a significant amount of investigative journalism and undercover reporting... now originates from this parallel universe of activism and campaigning, not from the mainstream media. To be sure, there are serious drawbacks to a PR-led media agenda, but there are also reasons for optimism.
... Overall, we view the PR industry as an integral component of the media landscape, and as a pivotal agent in the gathering, packaging and dissemination of news to consumers. The symbiosis between journalism and PR can be argued to deliver economic efficiencies and social welfare gains; but it also underscores the need for more transparency among journalists in the sourcing of news...