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."
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
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The New York Times; The Washington Post; Chicago Tribune;
Los Angeles Times; The Miami Herald
Consumer magazines: Atlantic; Essence; Nation; The Progressive Magazine;
Trade magazines: National Law Journal; New York Law Journal; other
regional legal publications
Internet: corpwatch.org; commondream.org.