As NBC’s Chief Whitehouse Correspondent Chuck Todd has one of the highest profile positions in political journalism. Not only does he get access to power and a front seat to history, but he gets to bring those stories to one of the last major media organizations left standing.
And he gets to do it wearing that cool goatee.
Now Todd is under fire for comments he made to MSNBC’s Morning Joe (a perk of being in the NBC family is exposure on other NBC properties). When pressed about why the public seems to hear only the Republican side of the healthcare debate, even when that information isn’t necessarily true*, Todd replied: “What I always love is people say, ‘well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the president of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”
The anger from media pundits calls Todd out for not doing his job, though in this situation he is really a surrogate for the broader “media,” which is certainly not monolithic. Still, FAIR called Todd to task for not taking to heart the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics which states that reporters should “Seek Truth and Report it” as well as “test the accuracy of information from all sources.”
All that is fine and good in the abstract, but the reality is that even as the news cycle condenses and the “information age” requires more and more content, the number of people paid to be “journalists” has dropped. Whose job is it to tell a balanced story, or to poke holes in information shared with the public?
In Dissent Magazine, Robert Stuckman recently pointed out that journalism itself has become a stepping stone to other careers. In This Town, Mark Leibovich noted that 19 journalists joined the Obama administration in its first term. The Chicago Sun Times laid off its entire photography staff, relying instead on fewer people to do the same job, thereby equating “snapping a picture” with “journalistic photography.” I should note, the publication’s website still has a top-line menu item asking visitors to “Buy Photos.”
The math here is pretty simple. Fewer reporters + more content = vacuum.
This vacuum is being filled, increasingly, by PR people; this is why there are 3 PR people for every reporter. And let’s be honest here, we are inherently biased. Our obligation, according to PRSA’s Code of Ethics, is to our clients as well as the public, though that’s not an easy balance. The first tenant is Advocacy, which implies bias. “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”
In other words, we’re not here to provide unbiased information to the public, but to speak for our clients; and not to lie.
Now our attitudes need to change, because we need to fill the vacuum. All those extra PR people aren’t pitching those lonely reporters, though I’m sure it can sometimes feel that way – we are writing for our clients; we’re publishing on our own media outlets on platforms like Tumblr, YouTube, blogs or Facebook; we’re creating videos and infographics, and providing information.
The public will continue to change what it expects from us and we must deliver. We need to bring a true “journalistic” attitude to the content we create, which means not relying on a traditional PR code of ethics, but creating a new one that holds our clients, their industries and even the government accountable. Some attempts have been made at this, but more work is needed.
Somehow we need to find a balance between messaging, selling and informing. There’s a gap and confusion over who is responsible for providing unbiased information. Where does that responsibility lie?
* The FAIR story on the topic uses the word “misinformation” to categorize the Republican talking points. This word itself is a bit of an odd choice, since information should be seen as either factual or not. “Misinformation” implies a middle ground, where the voracity of a claim is suspect. It is, in itself, a word designed to not offend and therefore not inform.