MEDIA SOCIAL ISSUES: Media Roundup - When it comes to socialinjustice, drama sells. PR practitioners argue that in-depth reportingon social issues is not as prevalent as it once was. David Ward looks atways to generate coverage despite the decline

When it comes to social injustice, journalists are much like

everyone else: they want to see problems corrected as often as possible.

But what they don't want is to present their audience with an unending

stream of bad news.

The result is that stories about social issues such as poverty, race

relations, sub-standard housing and teen pregnancy, usually only reach

the front page because of an exterior event, such as a trial or a


Social-issues journalism tends to be dominated by the elite media

outlets, most notably The New York Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for

a 15-part series last year on race relations. The newspaper is currently

running a series on AIDS.

Among the leading journalists covering social issues at the paper are

Robert Pear, Steven Greenhouse, Nina Bernstein, Don Terry and Bob


Others include Darryl Fears at The Washington Post; Phil Martin, who

covers race relations for NPR; Paul Shepard from the AP; and Dave

Marish, who contributes to ABC's Nightline.

The 'shrinking news hole'

But the lament among PR practitioners is that increasing specialization

among reporters, combined with cost-cutting by many media outlets, has

triggered a drop in crusading social-issues journalism. "It doesn't mean

that the issues are being kicked to the curb," notes Gwen McKinney,

president of McKinney & McDowell Associates, which represents the

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense

Fund, the US Commission on Civil Rights and other organizations. "It

means that instead of taking a wholesale approach, you've got to do a

retail pitch and establish a relationship with each individual


"There's a shrinking news hole on the print side, and you don't see

Edward R. Murrow-type TV programming," adds Michael Crook, director of

publicity for Habitat for Humanity. "I don't want to seem critical, but

the media, in setting the tone for national debate, can do more."

Habitat for Humanity continues to generate press coverage, largely

through celebrity-driven events such as Hollywood for Habitat, and

through perennial programs such as the Collegiate Challenge, in which

college students spend their spring break building houses. "Every year

we make a good effort to publicize it and we're always worried that it's

going to get stale," notes Crook. "But this year we got a

top-of-the-fold story in The New York Times." Other coverage included

the Today show, Good Morning America, major regional newspapers such as

The Miami Herald and local TV coverage.

"One of the reasons our work gets covered is that it's highly visual and

hands-on - it's charity but also self-help," Crook adds.

Lisa Magnino of Washington, DC-based Fenton Communications says timing

is everything for social-issues campaigns, and PR firms need to respond

whenever there's one in the news. Her theory was put to the test in late

May when the Supreme Court's decision to allow disabled golfer Casey

Martin to use a cart on the PGA tour became front-page news. Fenton,

which represents the disability group Center for an Accessible Society,

saw a chance to take advantage of the media's focus on disability.

"We're really doing response to the columns that have been written," she

says. "Disability issues cross from beat to beat. There's everything

from Supreme Court reporters to health reporters."

But while Magnino says she's had success leveraging the disability

issue, she had a more difficult time generating publicity for a recent

report on homelessness by the Corporation for Supportive Housing. "Print

took to it a little bit, and since it was a landmark study of New York

state, we got some coverage there. But it was a hard sell," she says.

"Homelessness just doesn't have the cache as it did in the 1980s."

Instant gratification

David Lerner, president and founder of Riptide Communications, says the

beat structure of many media outlets means that only rarely do social

issues get a thorough and broad review. "In places like The New Yorker

and The New York Times, you can have big theme pieces, but in day-to-day

spot journalism, you don't. I don't blame the journalists per se. I

think it's the culture of the media ... and the general trend toward

immediate-gratification-style news that doesn't lend itself to in-depth

reporting on poverty, for example."

Steven Rabin, who formerly worked at Porter Novelli and Ogilvy & Mather,

and is now assistant to the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation,

says coverage of social issues varies dramatically depending on the

subject. "Health and family get good coverage," he says. "Issues like

poverty, race relations and some of the more thorny social issues have a

tougher uphill climb."

Kaiser recently scored massive coverage with a report on sex on TV.

"With issues like sex education or adolescent development you get a lot

more mainstream coverage," says Rabin, adding that Kaiser is broadening

the appeal of many of its reports by doing state-by-state breakdowns to

appeal to regional and local reporters.

Often the strong selling point for a social issue story is genuine human

drama. Most reporters are looking for a family or individual in need

that can highlight a debate. But Lerner points out that pitches

featuring the human face of suffering alone are not enough. "You need to

make a policy point that contributes to the current debate," he says.

"You need a news hook that can connect the story to the political


Agencies, especially those with major Washington offices, such as Porter

Novelli and Fleishman-Hillard, increasingly are finding that

social-issues PR can be a viable, revenue-generating practice.

Beverly Schwartz, SVP at Fleishman-Hillard's Washington office, says,

"Actually, these stories are intriguing compared to a corporate business

story." Fleishman is currently handling the National Youth Antidrug

media campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Schwartz says a great many media outlets, both online and print, remain

interested in socially responsible content. "On the Internet, there is

content that is linked to our target audience," she says. "Sites such as

AOL's Kids Only, some music sites, and even fashion and catalog sites

such as Delia's, all carry socially responsible content. We're also

doing media kits and working through coalitions and universities to find

local angles."


Newspapers: The New York Times; The Washington Post; Chicago Tribune;

Los Angeles Times; The Miami Herald

Consumer magazines: Atlantic; Essence; Nation; The Progressive Magazine;

American Prospect

Trade magazines: National Law Journal; New York Law Journal; other

regional legal publications


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