Best Coverage Money Can Buy
issue 314 - July 1999
JOHN MITCHELL / PANOS PICTURES
Sharon Beder reveals how the well-oiled PR machine manufactures
much of what we have come to think of as news.
Press releases were invented by public-relations expert Ivy Lee in the early years of the twentieth century in an effort to control media coverage of railway accidents for his client, Pennsylvania Railway. He decided that if the press was going to report the accidents it would be better to make sure they reported them from the company point of view. The strategy was so successful that by the late 1940s almost half the news was based on press releases from public-relations departments and firms.
Today there is a vast industry of public-relations specialists who feed stories to journalists and set up ‘pseudo events’ such as press conferences and tours, photo opportunities and pre-arranged interviews, all staged to provide reportable events for the media. This ‘source journalism’ has largely replaced investigative reporting for harried journalists looking for easy stories.
By initiating the story, PR people are better able to shape the angle it gets told from and determine which people get interviewed. The ultimate pre-packaged news is the video news release. This is sent to TV stations and often aired with little change or indication to the audience that what they are watching is not independent reporting. Most broadcasters, whether in Europe or the US, make use of these releases in putting together the news.
PR strategists also take advantage of the journalistic ideal of ‘balance’. Take the case of global warming. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus supporting the existence of global warming, the media often portray it as a controversial scientific debate. The handful of corporate-funded scientists who oppose this consensus is, in the interests of ‘balance’, so widely quoted in the media that a distorted picture of scientific confusion is being propagated.
According to Phil Lesly, author of a PR handbook: ‘People generally do not favor action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. Media organizations are owned by multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporations that are involved in a wide range of businesses. These owners influence the selection, shaping and framing of the news not only to protect their own diverse interests but to attract advertisers. For commercial television and radio stations ads are their life-blood. They do their best to create a media product that suits those advertisers and captures audiences.’
Television soaps have their origins in advertisements by Procter & Gamble for their soap products. In the 1920s Procter & Gamble boosted soap sales by over 25 per cent with a series of newspaper advertisements which featured a family that used Ivory soap and a villain that used coloured and scented soaps. Following this success, Procter & Gamble tried radio shows which also featured stories that aimed to sell soap. These stories became known as ‘soap operas’ or ‘washboard weepers’. Today’s soaps and television entertainment portray a high-consumption US lifestyle and are shipped out to over 100 countries, making up the bulk of what most local audiences watch.
Dioxin, once seen as one of the most toxic substances known to humanity, underwent a major PR facelift in the early 1990s with the help of the print media. The New York Times was one of the leading papers to downplay its dangers. One article, headlined ‘US Officials Say Dangers of Dioxin Were Exaggerated’, stated: ‘Exposure to the chemical, once thought to be much more hazardous than chain-smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing.’ Another called for relaxation of ‘the current strict and costly standards’. No mention was made of the fact that the New York Times had major interests in four paper mills. At the time, one of these mills was the subject of a Canadian law suit claiming $900 million for polluting three rivers with dioxin.
The Times articles were reprinted in more than 20 other major US newspapers and the claims that dioxin was no longer dangerous were repeated by dozens of other media outlets. The comparison with sunbathing – which Times reporter Keith Schneider admitted he thought up himself – was repeated in many media outlets and variously attributed to ‘top federal scientists’. New scientific studies indicating that the danger of dioxin was in fact worse than previously realized were hardly reported. Media coverage continued to suggest that the dangers of dioxin had all been exaggerated by emotional environmentalists.
Environmental reporting emphasizes individual action rather than underlying social forces and issues. A current-affairs TV show may expose Corporation X for spewing toxic waste into the local waterway, but it will seldom look at the way corporations have lobbied to weaken the legislation preventing such dumping; how under-funded regulators allow corporations to monitor their own discharges; or the lack of personal liability for corporate board members who would put profit first and damn the consequences.
Journalists who try to expose these deeper societal maladies soon learn that it is the editor who decides which stories get aired or printed and how these are to be cut. Editors represent the owners in the news room. Journalists quickly learn which stories are likely to be run and internalize this message as a form of self-censorship – a helpful lesson in climbing the career ladder.
Sharon Beder is author of Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (Green Books, UK; Chelsea Green, US, 1997). She teaches at the University of Wollongong, Sydney, Australia.