The relationship between journalists and public relations practitioners is a vexed one, frequently discussed in the media and in industry forums such as a debate organised by the Public Relations Institute of Australia in Sydney on 6 May with claim and counter claim. Journalists dismiss PR as “spin” and most deny using it, while many PR people claim to their clients that they instigate most of what is in the media.

The relationship is shown by research to be complex, characterised by a state of what journalism academic Eric Louw calls “symbiotic tension”, and remains obscured by myths and stereotypes that belie the reality of media practices.

There is more than 80 years of research on the subject in the US, UK and in Australia. Much languishes in academic journals with neither side wanting to talk about it. Journalists are caught in a paradox in which they cannot admit using what their profession has long condemned. On the other side, PR practitioners don’t want to draw attention to their contacts and secrets of the trade.

So what is the reality of the journalism-PR relationship?

As far back as 1926, Silas Bent reported a study of the New York Times that found 147 of the 256 news stories in the newspaper on one day had been suggested, created or supplied by public relations sources. Other studies in the 1930s found around 60% of newspaper stories “were written or pasted up from press agent material” and the content of women’s pages was almost totally dependent on publicists.

In 1973, a study by Leon Sigal classified the sources of 1,146 stories in the Washington Post and New York Times and reported that around two-thirds of media stories originated from news releases, handouts and other documents handed to reporters by news sources. Similarly, in 1979 sociologist Herbert Gans reported that 75% of all news came from government and commercial sources.

Media text books document many such studies through the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, in Media Making: Mass Media in a Popular Culture, US professor of communication studies Lawrence Grossberg and his colleagues cite a number of studies that also suggest up to three-quarters of editorial media content is linked to PR sources.

There have been a number of studies in Australia dating back to 1992 when Ian Ward analysed content of the Courier Mail and Paul Grabowski and Paul Wilson analysed the relationship between police and reporters in 1996.

In research for my Master of Arts by research in 1992-93, news releases and statements were obtained from members of the PR Institute of Australia and compared with media stories on the same topics over a 12 months period. The tracking study retrieved 2,500 articles on the topics and content analysis found that 768 stories (31%) were wholly or substantially based on news releases, including verbatim extracts and facts and figures without alternative attribution.

One important clarification that this study did show is that “quality” newspapers rely on PR much less than other media. Up to 70% of the content of some trade, suburban, rural and specialist media was directly linked to PR releases or events. However, around 30% of the content of national and metropolitan media was also shown to be PR-related.

Recent research shows that the trend is continuing unabated. In the UK a 2008 Cardiff University study found that 60% of Britain’s national newspapers were comprised entirely of wire service copy or PR material, with a further 20 per cent containing at least some of these. Only 12% of British press articles were found to be independently sourced.

A puzzling issue that emerges is that, despite the evidence, many journalists deny using PR material. Does this mean that journalists are lying?

A pilot qualitative research study at the University of Technology Sydney in 2008 suggests not and gives some insights. In-depth interviews with journalists in specialists “rounds” such as IT, finance, sport, motoring and so on has revealed that over time journalists develop relationships with specialist PR practitioners and incorporate these into their circle of trusted contacts and no longer view them as public relations. They see those whom they trust as industry spokespersons or industry experts, while continuing to hold stereotypical negative attitudes towards public relations in general.

The Public Relations Institute of Australia points out that its members include information and communication officers in government departments and agencies, NGOs, and many other information providers who work to distribute important information honestly. They say that the generalisation of public relations as “spin” is a stereotype and that public relations, when practised ethically, is simply another source of information. However, most media academics and journalists agree that there should be greater transparency in disclosing sources and open dialogue, rather than hiding behind myths and stereotypes.

Jim Macnamara PhD is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney and the author of several books on public relations and media.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey