Analysis: Media Relations - Do journalistic ethics slip through the Net? - According to the latest Middleberg journalist survey, the Internet has taken its toll on corporate credibility and journalistic ethics. Why is that, and what can be done? Rebecca F

The latest Middleberg/Ross Print Media in Cyberspace Study delivered some bad news to PR pros. In its sixth year, the survey zeroed in on the issue of credibility and ethics. The findings? Web sites are basically viewed as marketing brochures, journalists are willing to report on Internet rumors and there’s a decline in press releases and e-mail pitches as story sources.

The latest Middleberg/Ross Print Media in Cyberspace Study delivered some bad news to PR pros. In its sixth year, the survey zeroed in on the issue of credibility and ethics. The findings? Web sites are basically viewed as marketing brochures, journalists are willing to report on Internet rumors and there’s a decline in press releases and e-mail pitches as story sources.

The latest Middleberg/Ross Print Media in Cyberspace Study

delivered some bad news to PR pros. In its sixth year, the survey zeroed

in on the issue of credibility and ethics. The findings? Web sites are

basically viewed as marketing brochures, journalists are willing to

report on Internet rumors and there’s a decline in press releases and

e-mail pitches as story sources.



The study - co-authored by Don Middleberg, chairman and CEO of New

York-based Middleberg & Associates, and Steven Ross, associate professor

at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism - was based on a

questionnaire mailed to 1,509 managing and business editors at daily

newspapers and managing editors of 2,500 American magazines. Nearly 400

editors responded.





Web credibility



One key finding of the survey was that most journalists do not view

company Web sites as credible sources of information. When asked to rank

various online sources on a five-point scale ranging from ’not credible’

to ’highly credible,’ only trade association sites were seen as more

credible than not. Since 77.7% of corporate PR executives said that

their companies use the Internet as a communications tool, according to

the PRWeek/BSMG Corporate Survey 2000 (PRWeek, February 28), this

indicates that a lot of Internet communications efforts may not be

effective. Perhaps this is because some corporate Web sites don’t even

bother to address journalists - only one third (36.3%) of PRWeek/BSMG

corporate survey respondents currently have a dedicated area for media

on their Web sites.



’With information on any Web site, you have to read between the lines,’

says Robert Collier, international affairs reporter for The San

Francisco Chronicle.



According to Middleberg, this perceived lack of credibility means that

PR people need to more truthfully convey information to convince

journalists that Web sites contain more than vacuous corporate

cheerleading. This is a viewpoint shared by Larry Kamer, chairman of GCI

Kamer Singer, who says that a lot of companies still see Web sites as

selling tools. ’The best sites recognize that this is a meeting place

for people seeking high credibility information,’ says Kamer. ’If they

don’t get it from the Web site, they’ll go elsewhere for information on

large corporations, such as hate sites, analysts and advocacy groups.’

And as this week’s Web Watch column shows (p18), many companies are now

devoting entire areas of their sites to bashing rivals.



Not willing to discount the value of corporate Web sites, Michael

Spataro, SVP of interactive PR at Miller/Shandwick Technologies, says

that the credibility of a site depends on what area a journalist is

visiting.



For instance, the IR section of a site may be highly credible, while he

says that the product marketing section is expected to have somewhat of

a spin. But Spataro argues that the point of a site is to reach the

customer.



’I don’t think the primary responsibility of a corporate site is to be

more credible to The Wall Street Journal,’ he claims.



According to Kim Nash, a senior editor for Computerworld, and Jim

Pierpoint, Reuters bureau chief in Charlotte, NC, large corporate sites,

in particular, are very trustworthy. ’It’s too easy to catch a company

in an error or fibbing,’ says Nash. However, she adds that since sites

typically only present one view, journalists should bring their

skepticism online.



While most PR teams are taking a role in developing Web sites (over 70%

of our corporate survey said their internal PR department was very

involved in Web strategy and content), Spataro denies that this has a

negative impact on credibility. ’You don’t need a Switzerland-like

agency to build it,’ he says.



However, a lack of credibility would not keep most journalists from

using Web forums or Usenet news groups as article sources. Seventeen

percent said they would do so in the future, even if the information was

not confirmed by a source. And well over half (60%) of respondents say

they would consider reporting an Internet rumor if confirmed by an

independent source, while 12% say they would not consider doing so, and

only a fraction (3%) admitted to having already done so.



According to Jim Rink, moderator for PRBytes, an online discussion group

for PR pros interested in the Internet, there are pros and cons to

reporters’ willingness to report on Internet rumors. ’It’s a very good

way to determine what people think and say at the grass-roots level,’ he

says. ’The con is that you have to be very careful about the credibility

of what they’re saying and how you incorporate it into your story.’



Kamer says this willingness to report on rumor is one more reason why PR

teams should be involved in monitoring message boards. ’A lot of

journalists don’t want to miss stories,’ he says, adding that the days

when a rumor floated in chatrooms for months before being discovered is

over. A recent study by Hill & Knowlton and Chief Executive magazine

found that while more than 60% of CEOs were concerned about negative

information on their companies in cyberspace, only 11% actually monitor

the Internet regularly to keep abreast of what is said.



Reuters has a policy of not reporting on rumors unless they’re moving

the market, which indicates that they may have a wider circulation than

just a chat room. Pierpoint says he may go into chat rooms to read

different viewpoints, but he says he would never report on them. ’You

don’t know the source, or what axe they have to grind,’ he says. But he

admits to logging onto sites for USAir and its flight attendants each

day for updates on a potential flight attendant strike.



Collier says he never reads message boards. ’It’s by no means a

representative sample,’ he says. ’If you don’t have any more accurate

and substantial way of measuring the public’s input, I think it can be

dangerous.’





Death of the press release?



Another bit of troubling news is that journalists are relying even less

on press releases as a source of story ideas. Sixty-five percent of

newspaper reporters and 52% of magazine journalists say they get the

majority of their story ideas from sources and leads. Press releases

dropped from second last year to third this year, while ’other,’

including editorial meetings, ideas from freelancers and industry

conferences, was the main source of ideas for 18% of magazine

journalists and 11% of newspaper journalists.



This was followed by Web sites, e-mail, Usenet news groups and LISTSERVS

(see graph).



According to the survey, one reason why ’other’ has become a stronger

source of story ideas is that the booming economy has created more

opportunities for publications to host their own events and cover

conferences held by other organizations. However, Nash insists that the

popularity of e-mail pitches isn’t waxing or waning, and says that she

chooses to develop story ideas from a variety of sources.



While the survey overall indicates a changing landscape and presents

some challenges for PR pros, what works best when dealing with

journalists remains the same - the honest and forthright delivery of



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