Is Ray Rice Fallout PR, Journalism, or … ?

jour·nal·ism: the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

The above definition of “journalism”, albeit brief, was excerpted from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary on 12/4/14, by yours truly.

There are secondary definitions, such as: writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest

The item that sparked this post, in the wake of the Ray Rice controversy, was a tweet from the director of the sports media program at the University of Georgia:

Respectfully, I disagree. Public relations IS a form of journalism, by at least one definition. The University of Georgia’s own journalism school includes a public relations sequence, which also was the case when I was in college there.

A quick primer: Public relations personnel are also occasionally known as “spin doctors”; they are generally employed to curry positive media attention, and do damage control when things go wrong for their clients. The White House press secretary is an example of a public relations operative.

The recent media appearances of Janay Rice, the wife of embattled NFL running back Ray Rice, are being cited as non-journalistic, because they obviously are being dictated by the source, not the medium.

Again, I disagree.

In many cases, controversial news subjects such as Ray and Janay Rice are not required to make public appearances to start with. But the public IS interested.

There is another instance of a major news story’s timing being controlled by the subject. In the 1990s, then-Atlanta Braves infielder Chipper Jones acknowledged to Morris News Service, which has no Atlanta-area outlets, that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. The story appeared during a Braves road trip, thus the damage control.

If you think about it, news media outlets don’t control the timing of many other news stories either, such as shootings, earthquakes or terrorist activities.

However, I DO see a gray area here. Janay Rice apparently was able to see an edited draft of her ESPN interview before it was published. This goes against the news media’s “prior restraint” privilege, which prevents censorship by outside sources.

The New York Times article on this includes this explainer:

Kelly McBride, a vice president at the Poynter Institute who was part of a team that served as an ESPN ombudsman, said she was not troubled by Ms. Hill’s offering final approval to Ms. Rice.

“I’m O.K. with sources seeing regular stories ahead of time as long as there are boundaries about why you change it,” she said. “It has to be only if something is wrong, not that the source is troubled by the tone.”

Also remember: It’s a competitive news media environment, and other news organizations likely would have acceded to Janay Rice’s request to get her interview. But such action should be rare.

Remember the recent controversy involving Bill Cosby and his “scuttled” request to a reporter — after the interview had begun? Had the reporter acceded, THAT would not have been journalism in any form.

But public relations is journalism. Don’t color a good news story like the Janay Rice interview with semantics. Fact: It was a matter of huge public interest, and therefore journalism.

— What’s your take on all this? Leave a comment below.



About Steve Burns

I live in the Atlanta area. I also lived for many years in Southern California. I'm into mainstream media, social media, sports, business and politics. I worked for AOL's Patch, but this is my personal blog. I'm on Twitter (@bsteve76), Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest. See ya 'round!
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