Shoptalk: A Major Distinction

By: George Beres

Experience of many years has taught me the distinction between public relations and journalism, and that to link them is dangerous. In the 1950s, I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Medill at Northwestern University, the finest in the nation, then wasted that training by spending most of the next 30 years as a public relations man. For years I did publicity and promotions for intercollegiate athletics, first at Northwestern, then at the University of Oregon. It was a benign version of the real travesty, with the lies usually amounting to adding an inch or two to a player’s

height, or 10 or 15 pounds to his weight, or to withhold information about a key player’s injury. This usually was done at the behest of the coach.

That was petty. It’s not petty when your government hires a public relations firm to change its image, as corporations and politicians have long done. When one plays that game with words, they have a way of coming back to haunt you, especially if you are a journalist whose career depends on using them fairly and accurately. It never hit closer to home than when, earlier this year, I read the welcoming announcement about a $6.5 million gift to the University of Oregon School of Journalism.

That’s the largest gift in that school’s history. Just over two-thirds of it is earmarked for starting a journalism program away from the Eugene campus, at the University’s Portland Center. No problem there ? until one reads further, and finds early focus of the grant to be a master’s degree program in public relations.

That’s playing an irresponsible game with words ? suggesting public relations has anything to do with journalism. If you understand what journalism and its principles stand for, you see that it’s word manipulation to equate it with the business of P.R. It gets serious when those at our universities entrusted with developing journalists are willing to make synonymous two disciplines whose goals are antithetical.

Over the years, distinguished journalists have reinforced that belief for me. The late Fred W. Friendly of CBS fame discussed it with me during his visit to the University of Oregon. “Study of public relations has a place on campus,” he told me, “but it should be divorced from the teaching of journalism. To suggest they are related diminishes the integrity of journalism.”

After Daniel Schorr gave a speech at the university, he told me: “Journalism, under criticism from many quarters in our country, feeds that criticism when its educators pretend to have any connection with public relations.”

Ken Bode, now at DePaul University, was dean at Medill when I challenged him about teaching public relations. He replied, “You are right. There is a problem with teaching the subject in a journalism school. But I’m too new as dean here to risk rocking the boat over a program that has its supporters, as well as financial implications.”

Definitions may vary. But few journalists would argue with defining their work as getting facts on matters of public concern and presenting them in a straightforward, honest way. An underlying guideline is that journalists represent the public interest, and are responsible to dig for information when the power structure tries to hide it.

Public relations, by contrast, essentially operates on behalf of a client, using facts selectively to paint as attractive an image as possible. Occasionally that may involve lies.

If the public recognized the distinction between truth-seeker and image-creator, concern would be limited. That’s not the case when, at the very root of the situation, teachers tell our journalism students and the rest of us that those who learn public relations skills also are journalists.

That is what’s happening. We see it in the very names of our educational programs, which at most schools today are listed as School of Journalism & Communications. How very sly. Just add a word to the name, and you justify being able to lump public relations, advertising, and promotion with journalism.

There are a couple of options that would preserve the integrity of journalism education. Teaching of public relations and related subjects could be moved to the School of Business. Or an institution might want to establish an independent curriculum under the heading “Communications,” fully separate from Journalism.

Few journalism administrators are willing to address the question publicly. Privately, several have told me putting P.R. into journalism is something dictated by the money that state schools derive from the number of students enrolled. Since P.R. has the reputation of paying better, most students today choose to enroll there.

The identity problem will persist so long as our public funding for education falls short, and journalism educators choose to use naming solutions for larger problems. That choice keeps journalism headed down a slope to a meaningless identity.

George Beres says that finally, in his 70s, he is pushing journalistic principles he wishes he had fully implemented years ago. He is retired in Eugene, Ore.

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Published: July 1, 2005


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