Save for the country’s top executives, almost everyone working in American business is doing more with less. So when serious journalists—an inherently cynical lot in the first place—grumble publicly about budget cuts, story quotas, and the pressure to blog or tweet, it makes sense that people outside of the industry aren’t moved to sympathy. Not only that, but we are bombarded with so much information online, in print, and over the airwaves, that it sometimes feels as though the world would keep spinning if, in a worst-case scenario, a few reporters had to find another way to make a living.
The problem is, more and more journalists and college graduates are forgoing the trenches to pursue a different career path. Instead of reporting the news, they’re working to help manipulate it as public relations specialists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in fact, in 1980 there were .45 PR people and .36 journalists per every 100,000 workers. As of 2008, that number had shifted radically. There are now .90 PR people per 100,000 workers and just .25 journalists. As Columbia Journalism Review reports in its May-June 2011 issue, that’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped and better financed to influence what the public sees and hears.
“I don’t know anyone who can look at that calculus and see a very good outcome,” communications professor Robert McChesney, who recently co-authored The Death and Life of America Journalism, tells the bimonthly magazine. “What we are seeing now is the demise of journalism at the same time we have an increasing level of public relations and propaganda. . . . We are entering a zone that has never been seen before in the country.”
“True Enough: The Second Age of PR,” written by former New York Time reporter John Sullivan and copublished with ProPublica, explores the ways that corporations, the government, and other well-funded entities are able to influence news coverage, especially as fewer journalists have less time to report deeply on fast-moving stories. For instance, Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, tells Sullivan that in order to compete with their peers, editors and publishers put an even higher premium “on time, on speed, on getting the first bit of information up quickly. Often that first bit of information is coming from government agencies or public relations.” What’s more disconcerting is that even when reporters eventually do go back and flesh out a story, it’s the initial headline that’s quickest to spread and leave the most lasting impression.
Public relations agencies have also become adept at getting news outlets to treat corporate representatives and other sources with a clear agenda to act as sources. For precedent, just consider the number of former military personnel, many of them working for think tanks or weapons-making companies, who are tapped to opine about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Not only are they biased, but viewers perceived them to be more credible, since they are now independent of the government and media.