By Jennifer R. Farmer
Earlier this week, leaked video appeared to show Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White striking his wife at a New Year’s Eve party. While the clip surfaced on social media, mainstream media coverage of the incident has been sparse. What’s more, according to editor and writer Jeff Wagenheim, ESPN leadership allegedly advised its talent to not comment derisively on the matter, prompting many on Twitter to highlight that the media responds to domestic violence more harshly and more severely when the accused is a Black vs. white man.
In addition to comparisons around how the media covers Black and non-Black people, some people noted that ESPN staff not commenting on White’s alleged abuse indicates that they are public relations representatives, not journalists. That is wrong. ESPN leadership allegedly ordered staff to not comment on the incident, which, in my opinion, raises ethical questions. But that is an editorial decision, not an indication of ESPN staff behaving as PR reps. Staff opting to follow the editorial direction of their company leadership – who have the power to hire, fire, promote or demote – is not an indication of them doing what a PR rep might do. So what’s the difference?
On the surface, journalism and PR seem very similar. Both involve communicating with the public, and both use media to share information. However, the two disciplines are very different. Journalists have a responsibility to report the news, not interpret it or take sides. PR professionals exist to manage and shape how an entity or brand engages with the various publics in its orbit – media, clients, customers, fans, stakeholders, employees, industry peers, etc.
Journalists work for entities including print, radio, podcast, and television media outlets. They also increasingly use social media to amplify their stories and reach larger audiences. PR professionals work in the communications, public affairs or media departments at their companies which can be for- or non-profit. They also use a host of tools to manage and shape their relationship with their publics, including advertising, marketing, social media, content development and distribution, podcasting, printing and production, earned media, public events, charitable donations and public speaking.
Finally, and most importantly, journalists are tasked with reporting the news, not shaping it. But they can only do so within the confines of editorial mandates and standards at the organizations that employ them.
It is no secret that some media outlets are more closely aligned with one viewpoint or another, and their on-air talent reflect that viewpoint.
I define journalists as people who have attended journalism school, have been trained in the ethics of journalism and work for a traditional journalism company. I also think of journalists as people who attempt to be neutral. Most print publications and local television networks try to be neutral or give the appearance of neutrality. That means they will often gather both sides of a story before reporting on it. There are exceptions, but that is the goal.
Public Relations staff may study PR in school, and some have backgrounds in marketing or sales. But there is no mandate that PR staff have one degree or another to enter the profession.
Another distinction between journalism and PR, is that PR professionals, want to shape the news and influence public perception. They want their audiences, including members of the media, to see the world the way their organization, brand or client does. PR professionals are not neutral – they have an opinion, and their job is to share it.