Pew, whose annual thrashing of the press and reporters is oddly labeled "The Project for Excellence in Journalism," should fund a companion study called "Project for Excellence in PR" which would cover PR’s role in declining press credibility.
Amy Mitchell, with PEJ since its founding in 1997 and previously with the American Enterprise Institute where she researched public policy and the relationship of the press, the public and government, is now the acting director.
We asked her in a phone call today to do a study of PR practices with a special focus on reporters' experiences in obtaining information from companies and institutions and the near disappearance of press conferences.
She is serving in place of Tom Rosensteil, former Los Angeles Times media critic who was the initial head of PEJ and who has become executive director of the American Press Institute, which merged last year with the Newspaper Assn. of America Foundation.
PEJ reports are loaded with surveys showing the public's declining faith in news media and blaming this on smaller staffs that don't dig deeply enough.
PEJ's 2011 report started off by saying "Negative opinions about the performance of news organizations now equal or surpass all-time highs on nine of 12 core measures Pew has been tracking since 1985."
The 2012 report starts with "A continued erosion of reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public."
Pew, fueled by about $5 billion in Sunoco oil money and with deep conservative roots (Joseph Pew Jr. called President Roosevelt's New Deal "a gigantic scheme to raze U.S. businesses to a dead level and debase the citizenry into a mass of ballot-casting serfs"), says organizations are simply going directly to their audiences "without any filter by the traditional media."
The news industry "is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones, or to question information put into its hands," huffs PEJ.
Mitchell Should Channel UNESCO
Mitchell should take a look at the 51-page report that UNESCO published last April noting that 372 journalists have been killed since 2006 (many of them hunted down and murdered in cold blood) and saying that this is only the tip of an iceberg of press avoidance and persecution that goes on worldwide.
Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said most press interference takes place at the local level and involves refusal to grant "credentials," threats of arrests and jailings, lawsuits, destruction of news offices, and expulsion of reporters from a country.
Worse yet, she said, is the failure of governments and institutions to do anything about this. Press bashers roam with "impunity," she said, noting that only nine of 27 countries responded to UNESCO requests for more information on the murders of reporters in their countries.
This could be because the governments and institutions themselves are behind the offensive against the press.
Press Freedom Day May 3
May 3 is "World Press Freedom Day," continuing an observance started in 1991. It celebrates principles of press freedom, evaluates press freedom worldwide, defends media from attacks, and pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in their jobs.
Pew's charges of reporters failing to "dig deep" or "question information" that is provided rankles us because of the tight information and stonewalling practices that are common at companies and institutions.
It is not our fault we don't get certain information or get our questions answered. Mitchell should look into that side of the equation.
For instance, last Oct. 15, we went cross-country to the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco eager to cover the Assembly of the PR Society of America and visit each of the 45 exhibitors both to collect stories and tell them about advertising opportunities in our January 2013 O'Dwyer's PR Buyer's Guide.
PRSA Reneged on Boycott
Arthur Yann, VP-PR of the Society, had said on PR Newser March 14, 2012 that the Society had no boycott against any news medium including the O'Dwyer Co. He made this statement after PR Newser reported that O'Dwyer reporters had been barred from the Assembly in 2011 and blocked from entering the exhibit hall.
But when we arrived outside the site of the
Assembly, Yann had a hotel security guard escort us up one escalator level where we were told to stand in back of a line. We did so but also greeted arriving delegates because we know many of them from 40 years of covering the Assembly.
Several guards then "swarmed" us and said we were violating a rule against talking to anyone. They forced us to go up another escalator to the lobby where the chief of security laid out ground rules. If we bought a cup of coffee from a Starbucks facility in the lobby, we were on Starbucks' premises and could talk to people there, he said. But when we did so, different guards came up to us and said that even talking there was forbidden and we had to leave the hotel forthwith. We were walked shoulder-to-shoulder to the door, and told to go across the street and not come back.
A sidelight here is that the head of Marriott PR is Kathleen Matthews, former D.C. on-air TV reporter and wife of "Hardball's" Chris Matthews. There was no Marriott PR person at the hotel that we could talk to.
Was This Poor Reporting on Our Part?
Our question to Mitchell is whether we were "unprepared to uncover stories," or "dig deeper into emerging ones," or to "question information" put into our hands?
How could we report on the Assembly or 45 exhibitors if we were across the street from the hotel?
The PR trade press should also have access to the extensive research the PR Society did from 1999-2001 on the pressures on members to do unethical things and their attitudes towards enforcement of the Society's Ethics Code.
The Ethics Resource Center was paid $50,554 for in-person interviews and circulation of 78 questions on ethical issues to the entire 20,600 membership. ERC said half the respondents reported being under "extraordinary pressures" to perform unethically.
The entire ERC report should be available to members and the press but it would probably take a lawsuit to pry it loose. Are we in the press negligent because the Society withholds the study?
Its press-blocking policies mirror those of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of mostly Republican state legislators and company lobbyists, which has ejected reporters from PR Watch, the Toronto Star and Arizona Republic from its meetings.
Only the National Press Club has urged the Society to stop interfering with press coverage. A dozen other J/PR groups, most notably the Society of Professional Journalists, are sitting on their hands.
Since Pew is a fan of "excellence," it should define what is excellent in PR.