A couple days ago I wrote about a disturbing trend in modern journalism: with the economy tight, newsrooms are reducing staff to the bare-bones minimum, making it harder and harder for news departments to conduct investigative reporting (or sometimes even basic fact-checking). As a result, reporters often have to rely on what they’re told. That’s always been true to an extent, but I think it’s even more true now than ever before.
In itself, this isn’t the end of the world—so long as those doing the telling are informed and honest, with no incentive to lie or withhold key details or spin the facts to make themselves look good.
And sometimes that’s actually the case. When police or other government officials want to get vital information out to the public, they use the local media. (I remember getting a call from the Chapel Hill PD earlier this year to ask if we could get the word out about an overnight break-in. As I put it on Facebook later: “Small-town journalism in a nutshell—Chapel Hill Police just called me to report a crime.”) The same is even true—occasionally—with more controversial issues. After the Yates Building incident in November 2011, there was some debate about whether those in charge made the right decision given the information they had, but it was obvious to all that they should have had more information in the first place. I think it was town manager Roger Stancil who called it a “communications breakdown.” So there was an incentive for town leaders to communicate, both with each other and with the public. And though it did take a while (Stancil at one point put a gag order on Town staff), eventually they opened up completely. And positive changes got made.
But when those with access to information do have an incentive to lie, to withhold, or to spin—well, that’s a different story.
Small-scale example: let’s talk about University Mall.
It was in mid-September when the news first broke that Dillard’s was likely going to leave—that was when the store converted to a clearance center and shifted very obviously into everything-must-go mode. But was it leaving? It looked that way, but nobody would say for certain: Dillard’s spokesperson Julie Bull said only that the store was converting to clearance, but insisted that didn’t (necessarily) mean it was on the way out. U-Mall GM Peter DeLeon told us that was as much as he knew as well. “(Bull) stated to us that she has not been given that information that they are closing,” he told WCHL, “(and) at this point we have to respect what Dillard’s is telling us.”
How much of that was true? While all that was going on, I walked into Dillard’s, no press badge, and casually asked a cashier what she’d heard—and although she said she’d heard conflicting reports, she told me they’d been informed Dillard’s was closing within a few months. This turned out to be true, and it was more specific than we (and possibly even U-Mall) were hearing from the company. They knew more than they were letting on. And while it’s possible they were keeping U-Mall in the dark as well, there’s evidence to suggest that Silverspot Cinemas was already in the works too. For one thing, it was already in the rumor mill: someone told us in September that she’d heard U-Mall was bringing in a movie theater, though that information was third-hand and the original source wouldn’t go on record. And then there was last week’s press conference, where mall staff put up several renderings of what the new theater would look like—one of which, someone told me later, was actually dated July.
So it’s fair to say there may have been a disconnect between the reality and the official story.
Well, frankly, in September, neither Dillard’s nor U-Mall had much incentive to confirm the store was closing, even if it was true. For Dillard’s, it’s negative publicity: you’re laying off employees, which never looks good, plus closing a location suggests the company is in trouble. (Even in November they didn’t say much. Here’s the one press release where they announced it: good luck spotting it in there.) Same goes for U-Mall, and there it’s even more crucial: malls depend on strong anchor stores to draw in business, and the nation is already littered with malls that suffered badly because they lost their anchor. So U-Mall had every incentive to hold off announcing that Dillard’s was out until they could tailor the announcement to focus on the nice new thing that was coming in.
And in this case, no harm done. We got the full story in November instead of September. No big deal.
But it’s noteworthy that the media really wasn’t able to crack this nut two months ago—and that’s emblematic of a larger, more troubling issue.
For the problem is double-sided. Lacking the power to investigate, reporters in the shrunken newsroom increasingly have to rely on what they’re told—to depend on the kindness of strangers, as it were. But even in a relatively minor situation like this, those with information usually have at least some incentive to withhold it or spin it to their advantage.
There’s no malice in this, by the way. These are good people doing their jobs.
But while reporters’ power is declining, their power is growing. And that’s changing how news stories get told.
Here’s the second trend: while the news media has declined, the PR industry has taken off—and it’s made a science of figuring out how best to ‘control the message.’
Public relations has been around forever. As a profession, though, it’s only about as old as psychology, and it’s advancing at about the same rate. (Think about how bad psychology was in 1950 compared to today—PR’s improved by similar leaps and bounds.) And as companies and organizations grow more aware of the importance of “image,” public relations takes on an increasingly prominent role. (This is heightened all the more because there’s been an explosion of new media outlets in recent decades too—from cable channels to the Internet to social media and beyond. Now, if you’re a company, it’s not enough to craft your image on three or four outlets—you have to craft it on three or four hundred.)
As a result: fifty years ago there was one PR rep for every reporter; now the ratio’s closer to 4:1. No reason to think that’s going to change. Career advisors are now actively encouraging prospective journalism majors to track towards PR instead. (Better long-term prospects.)
And that in turn amplifies and accelerates the consequence of all this: what you hear in the news is often just a rehash of official statements and press releases. “Churnalism,” it’s called. We often blame this on journalistic laziness, but that’s not what it is—it’s all these trends at once, coming together. And this is what you get. Government agencies, organizations, businesses all carefully route inquiries to the press office; everyone else is carefully instructed not to speak. You listen to a newscast talk about some national issue, it’s nothing but a Democratic sound bite followed by a Republican sound bite.
Sometimes this is helpful, especially when the PR reps become aware that it’s up to them to determine what gets reported as news. Catherine Lazorko is the public information officer for the Town of Chapel Hill. A couple years ago at WCHL’s Community Forum, she said something that stuck with me: that she finds herself being more careful now, when crafting press releases, about covering all the bases and angles of a given issue—because she knows that her words will very likely end up being lifted directly and dropped into a story. (I doubt that’s changed in the last two years.)
But we can’t assume that sort of altruistic behavior on a regular basis—especially when the organization in question has every incentive to clam up.
In the last three years UNC has had to put up with—well, let’s just say they’ve had to put up with a lot. It’s been three very difficult years. And let’s be honest: some of the headache came from their willingness to be good and open and transparent all that time. Other schools have committed violations far worse than UNC’s—but they locked down, zipped their lips, refused to let NCAA investigators on campus, and basically got off scot-free. UNC did it right, played the game, let investigators on campus, threw open their books, and talked at great length about what went wrong and how best to fix it—and ultimately got hit with sanctions far worse than Miami and Auburn and Oklahoma State and all those other schools put together.
Well, lesson learned.
With the transition from Holden Thorp to Carol Folt, UNC has suddenly become a lot more tight-lipped, at least when it comes to the top administrators. Folt has been incommunicado since taking over, aside from public appearances and carefully prepared remarks; you may notice you don’t hear her quoted in the media nearly as often as Thorp was. (Folt did sit down with us for a WCHL News Special with Jim Heavner, but that was really her first extended interview since she first took over—and it’s worth noting that it aired in November. We usually do that annual interview-with-the-chancellor in August.)
And it goes further. Earlier this month UNC named Joel Curran—senior executive at one of the world’s largest PR agencies—to the position of “Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs.” It’s a position they just now created.
Three guesses why.
The point is, organizations like UNC have every reason to want to control the message, as much as possible. The PR industry has enabled them to do that more effectively than ever before—and the media’s inability to dig deeper makes it all the easier too. It’s not because of malice or laziness or any personal flaw—it’s the byproduct of several long-term, large-scale trends, and if we want to reverse it it’s not going to be easy.
But that’s where it stands.
And shoot, now I can’t think of a good ending for this post. Well, add your own pithy conclusion here, and I’ll accept it without question.