Who’s the one to blame?
The debate about investigative journalism and Public Relations
within the framework of the public sphere in a time of transition in
the media industry
An essay by Thomas Euler
Public Relations (PR) often is part of a popular debate that blames the
professional communication of companies, politicians, parties and further
groups for having a negative effect on the public sphere. It is, for instance,
claimed that PR causes a decrease in the quality as well as the amount of
investigative journalism throughout the media and therefore hinders a
transparent and fact-based public debate. After outlining the relevance of
investigative journalism within a democratic society and positioning Public
Relations within this framework, the present essay is going to demonstrate
the most common accusations regarding PR and test the validity of those
statements. To this end, it will investigate if PR is responsible for the negative
outcomes that are depicted by its critics or if in fact a structural problem
within the media landscape and journalism is the root of the problems. In this
context a closer look is taken on the influence of the internet on the traditional
media and investigative journalism in particular, and which impacts this has
on Public Relations in theory and praxis. As a result the author will draw
conclusions regarding the impact PR has on investigative journalism and the
public debate and, moreover, will give recommendations for the behaviour of
journalism and PR in times of a drastically changing media landscape.
Investigative Journalism in the context of the public sphere
A democratic society demands quality, investigative journalism. Habermas
(1989) developed the model of the public sphere, which he describes as the
realm where private individuals come together to discuss public issues in
order to form a public opinion and will. In modern democratic societies, free
media is a major contributor to the public sphere because it provides the
individuals with the necessary information about what those public issues are
and which opinions, viewpoints and arguments exist around these, so the
people can make informed decisions. Moreover, journalism does not only
have the object to inform the public, but also to act as a watchdog: As McNair
(2000) explains for the political context, media institutions must scrutinise
governmental actions and party efforts in order to provide the public with
legitimising information. The same can also be considered as valid for
information about businesses, which aims to establish transparency
concerning individual companies and markets, again in order to allow
stakeholders making informed decisions. Hence, journalists must critically
check information of different sources, as well as research and uncover facts
that otherwise would not have reached the public (eg because politicians or
corporations would not have published them on their own).
It is this ideal of a press designed quot;to act on behalf of the people and report
on and give voice to those in positions of political, corporate, economic and
social responsibilityquot; (Schultz 1998, p.1) that lead to the media‘s self-
proclaimed position as the fourth estate. This term refers to the press in
direct differentiation to the three other estates - clergy, nobility and
commoners - in pre-revolution France. A more contemporary term is the
German word vierte Gewalt (fourth branch) that origins from the separation of
powers within democratic societies and establishes the press as the fourth
branch next to executive, legislature and judiciary.
For the press being able to meet these expectations, it must fulfil the
normative ideal of Habermas (1996) who demands journalists being
independent from political and social pressure and open for public concerns
and proposals to secure their role as the mandatory of an enlightened
Public Relations – the evil spinners
Contrary to the press as an important component of a well-functioning
democratic society, Public Relations is, according to the categorical opinion
of many critics, inherently unethical or, plainly spoken, an evil simply because
of its existence. This view is articulated from scholars and popular authors
alike, even though their arguments differ in detail. Public commentators often
fail to differentiate between propaganda and Public Relations, and blame PR
for being manipulative, spin doctoring and cynically exploiting the media
(McCrystal, 2008) and therefore, frankly, as a necessarily lying practice.
Even though some PR practitioners rely on such techniques, as the case
Damian McBride popularly demonstrated recently, it is a popular however
false generalisation to extrapolate from them on the whole Public Relations
discipline. Scandals like this led, according to Seitel (2007, p.12),
―to the notion that ‗spinning the facts‘ is synonymous with public
relations practice. It isn‘t. Spinning an answer to hide what really
happened—that is, lying, confusing, distorting, obfuscating, whatever
you call it—is antithetical to the proper practice of public relations. In
public relations, if you lie once, you will never be trusted again—
particularly by the media.‖
Moreover, McNair (2004, p.337) argues that simply the fact that today PR is
often in the focus of investigative journalism
―implies that, if the activities of political PR practitioners must be
monitored and lapses publicly criticised, in the same way that
journalism is regulated to prevent ethical breaches, neither the
practice in itself, however, nor those who practise it, deserve to be
demonised from the outset as enemies of democracy, pathological
liars, communication perverts and pornographers, or any of the other
phrases which regularly appear in the academic and journalistic
literature about political PR.‖
Critical scholars on the other hand have a more differentiated view than
popular critics, however with a similar result, as exemplary illustrated by a
statement from Salter (2005, p.98), who argues that even PR professionals
quot;with good intentions are unable to act ethically without prejudicing their
capacity to be (instrumentally) good public relations agentsquot; because they
are not capable of providing transparent and not intentionally selected
The meaning of PR within a democratic society
However, the fact those views fail to acknowledge is that for a democratic
society to work it is necessary that all members of the society have the
opportunity to express their opinions within the public sphere so that all
individuals that constitute the public have access to the largest possible
amount of information. Only if this is assured, an informed public decision
can be made and a balance of interests be guaranteed. Therefore,
politicians, companies and other organisations (or individuals) need to be
able to participate in the debates within the public sphere. They must be
allowed to share their views on certain topics of their concern, so they aren‘t
overheard when decisions that are of relevance to them are made. Thus,
organisations need a department that is in charge of its communication with
those parts of the public that are important for or interested in the
organisation – the stakeholders. This task is performed by the Public
Grunig and Hunt (1984) identified four levels of PR practice. Probably the
most ideal level is two-way symmetric communication, which aims for mutual
understanding between the organisation (which employs PR) and its
stakeholders. Moreover, in this model PR does not only act as a sender but
also listens to its stakeholders in order to balance the interests and achieve a
result that is desirable for all parties involved. Indeed, this presents a means
of PR that is in sync with a healthy public sphere in Habermas‘ sense.
However, often this model is far from the reality found in PR praxis and
hardly can fulfil all PR tasks, most notably not in a business environment.
This is, because those who use PR do so for a reason: they want to achieve
certain goals. This can only be realised by convincing others of the own
opinion. Accordingly, Grunig and Hunt‘s next stage, two-way asymmetric
communication, where the communication is also bidirectional but always in
favour of the sender that aims to promote his own opinion, is more likely to
meet the expectations that most organisations have in PR.
Journalists as victims of spin
To be sure, PR critics will argue that simply by intending to convince others
and not communicating neutrally, PR becomes unethical (Salter, 2005).
However, consequently following this reasoning everybody who publicly
champions a view would act unethical – an idea that is absolutely
inconsistent with the ideal of a liberal, enlightened society. Accordingly, it
seems more appropriate to think about PR as a legitimate act of opinion
expression, which - and that‘s the crux of the matter - must be questioned
and put into context by an independent journalism (Jenkins, 2006).
Yet, journalists like to blame Public Relations for not providing them with
impartial facts and information but instead spinning stories in a way they
match the interest of the PR‘s client. Julia Hobsbawm (2003) quite apt
labelled this as journalist-as-victim-of-spin culture. An example for this
accusation is the statement of journalist Bryan Appleyard (2003) who wrote
that the quot;truth has been destroyed by public relations executives, or ‗scum‘ as
we like to call them‖. In more detail, Vincent Graff (2005) summarises his
peer‘s opinion on PR, albeit not without self criticism:
quot;Journalists are used to playing the patsy. We are familiar with the
opinion pollsters' rankings of our trustworthiness alongside estate
agents and second-hand car salesmen. So, [...] we need to find a
victim of our own [...]. And, for the past 100 years, we have had one:
the public relations industry. For all the faults of journalism, PR is 10
times grubbier, we declare. At least (on a good day) we are seeking
the truth. A PR is paid by his or her client to shield people from it.quot;
McNair (2004, p.326) claims that such an ―anti PR-consensus‖ exists
amongst journalists and scholars. Simplified the argument goes somewhat
like this: Because PR professionals spread their lies amongst journalists and
the public, the fourth estate is increasingly exploited by PR and therefore is
constrained in its ability to serve the public sphere. As a result, society and
democracy suffer because the amount of true information to base decisions
The journalist’s negligence
Even though this might initially sound plausible, close inspection reveals that
this argument does not address the real cause of an increasingly PR
infiltrated media landscape. People and organisations have communicated
with the press for as long as it exits and, besides this communication has not
always been called PR, the principles of the PR-Press-relation haven‘t
changed a lot. Still PR aims to influence journalists so they publish
favourable stories, and still the journalist has to question and double-check
every bit of information s/he receives. Thus, in case those are right who
argue that today‘s newspapers are too loaded with PR at the expense of
investigative, quality journalism, the following question is raised:
How can journalists overlook that the information they receive from Public
Relations professionals is partial by definition and how is it that they don‘t
verify - and if required rectify - the information they receive from them?
The answer to it is partially given by Hobsbawm (2003) who argues that
journalists increasingly rely on co-operations with PR because they work
under an extreme pressure. She writes:
―For the journalist who has to cover a story in half an hour (and often in less
time than that), the communications expert can be a lifeline: for facts and
figures and basic information-gathering.‖
The media industry’s structure negatively influences
The reason behind the pressure that Hobsbawm mentions is a structural
problem of the media landscape. The industry is highly competitive and
driven by the need to make profits. Therefore, news and investigative reports
are basically commodities that must be profitable (Chambers, 2000). These
basic conditions negatively affect the media‘s ability and affinity to produce
investigative journalism because it is rather expensive, especially compared
to copy-and-paste-a-press-release journalism. Within recent years the
pressure increased further when many editorial departments shrank in size.
The newspaper industry was most deeply hurt; most dramatically in the USA
but it is expected to face rough times also in the UK with 10.000 jobs in the
regional press predicted to disappear by 2012 (Kirwan, 2009). The main
drivers for this situation are a decrease in print advertising revenue and a
loss of circulation, both of which are bred not least by a transition of readers
from print to online (Mutter and Jarvis, 2009).
Is there a media revolution?
According to author and Interactive Telecommunications professor Clay
Shirky (2009), the newspaper industry is in the middle of a revolution, a
period in which ―old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its
place‖. And indeed, there are indications that seem to prove him right.
Tradition-rich newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, among others, were shut down in the USA. In many other
countries the industry suffers from job cutbacks and it is rather a question of
when than if other printed newspapers are going to follow the American way.
On the other hand, the revenues generated online can in most cases not yet
compensate the decline in print advertising revenues and neither pay for the
expenses necessary to maintain the editorial infrastructure. The former
Observer editor and Journalism professor Donald Trelford (2009)
summarises the issue:
―The industry in which I have spent half a century may have to learn very
quickly that society doesn't need newspapers any more. But it will still need
journalism to find things out and explain the world's complexities. The
challenge – not just for newspaper companies, but for society as a whole – is
how to pay for that when traditional sources of revenue have disappeared or
The problem is, as Shirky (2009) argues, no business model has yet been
found that solidly finances expensive investigative journalism online. Indeed,
that is a danger for the public sphere because at the present time print
newspapers create a large amount of the investigative journalism that is
beneficial for society. Nonetheless Shirky (2009) is right when he writes
―‘You‘re gonna miss us when we‘re gone!‘ has never been much of a
The internet under journalistic fire
As a result of this situation journalists started to blame the internet for being a
jeopardy to investigative journalism and therefore society as a whole, similar
to the impeachments against PR. For instance, Frank Schirrmacher (2007),
publisher of the German Newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ),
argued that the internet is responsible for a societal moral decline as well for
an increasing number of non-readers without presenting any evidence for his
hypotheses. When looking for similar undifferentiated statements you will find
plenty because the journalists are scared – no wonder considering numbers
like this: for any lost print reader a newspaper must attract 10 online readers
because advertisers estimate the value of an online reader only at 10% of a
print reader (Hari, 2009) – and react like a child that dreads punishment: they
put the blame on others.
Admittedly, the journalist of today has dire straits. While he tries to fulfil the
tasks that are inflicted on him by the public, the economic circumstances
force him to work under an increased pressure and on top of that his solitary
role as fourth estate – bridge between power and public – is under attack
from PR and the Internet, where all of a sudden everybody has the ability to
publish. McNair wrote:
quot;We live in an era of proliferating media outlets, it is generally acknowledged,
but their content is increasingly shaped by the low, base needs of commerce
and profit rather than the higher motivations of culture and civic duty.quot; (2000,
But who’s the one to blame?
Is it the Internet, that undermines the position of investigative journalism by
giving a voice to an unqualified mass of people that doesn‘t care for
journalistic values, as Süddeutsche Zeitung vice editor-in-chief Bernard Graff
(2007) claims? No. Blogs and other means of online publishing are only a
platform on which content is presented. Hence it is of course possible to
publish quality journalistic content online. Therefore, it is not possible to make
a general statement about the internet and its journalistic quality (Bradshaw,
Also PR, as outlined earlier in this text, is not the reason for the decline of
investigative journalism and an assumed loss of quality in the public debate.
Instead, it is a popular scapegoat that blocks the view on the real problem
that journalism is facing at the moment.
We live in a time of drastic structural change or even revolution of the media
landscape. Investigative journalism must find a way to survive in this hostile
environment. By no means may it be allowed to become a victim of this crisis
or democracy itself will be deeply hurt. Luckily, different (business) models
for journalism are not only thinkable but already reality. For instance, the
founder of the political blog Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington (2009),
launched an independent, non-profit fund that will produce investigative
journalism. It will employ staff writers as well as freelancers and pay their
wages. The resulting journalistic pieces can be used by all media - for free.
Developments like this might well indicate a path for the future of quality
For PR, too, the current situation brings up issues. A major one is how it
should best deal with its increased ability to place its stories in the media,
which is due to the pressure under which journalists have to work. The
answer is that PR professionals shouldn‘t take advantage of this in order not
to damage their own profession. This would finally happen if - driven by large
amounts of PR in the media - the scepticism against the media, which is
already spreading, grew to a point where the press loses its credibility and
public trust. At this point PR messages would also have lost their
effectiveness because the conveyer of the message would have lost his.
Therefore, placing PR stories only because it is possible means swapping
long-term success for the short-term hype whilst at the same time eliminating
the breeding ground of the whole PR profession.
Instead, PR must strive to support journalism in its attempt to act as an
independent fourth estate - if not for ethical reasons then for sheer self-
preservation. In doing so, PR accepts the role of opinion expression it has
within the framework of the political sphere without acting on cost of
investigative journalism. Thereby it serves the public – the scope and major
stakeholder of both, PR and journalism – as a valuable contributor to the
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