It’s time for PR for journalism

It sounds terrible, I know. Nobody likes PR, and its longstanding effects on journalism have been unquestionably catastrophic. But today, as the populist right takes over the conversation about news and its role within society by bashing journalists and inciting against “the media,” it’s become inescapable: This year, journalists must start campaigning for journalism.

Research conducted in recent years indicates that the anti-media rhetoric and delegitimizing techniques embraced by right-wing elites worldwide affect and polarize public perceptions of the media, undermining its ability to hold those in power accountable. No less important, it also transforms the way journalists work, encouraging self-censorship and what I call “strategic bias” — an intentional shift to the right. In other words, it’s a disaster, both for journalists’ daily lives (which have changed dramatically over the past few years) and for the news we consume.

Initial evidence suggests that making counter-arguments to the baseless accusations against critical journalism is crucial if one is to maintain — or regain — the public’s trust in the news media. But much too often, journalists refrain from making such explicit arguments, worrying that they might portray them as biased and self-interested. Keeping quiet — hoping that the public sees the populist strategy for what it is, or waiting for these dark days to pass — has not been proven useful, in Israel, in the U.S., or elsewhere.

To be clear, what I mean by PR is not the personal self-promotion that journalists do on social media. It’s the commitment to promote and explain journalism as a flawed-yet-necessary social institution. As media-savvy journalists should know, vague arguments about “saving democracy” or “checks and balances” won’t do; they’re too abstract and carry little sentimental resonance for many. So what would a wiser PR strategy look like?

If journalists genuinely believe that journalism is essential for society, they shouldn’t shy away from saying exactly how and why. Dear reporter, editor, and news host: How have you actually contributed to people’s everyday life this past year? What have you done to expose discrimination, corruption, or exploitation? How does your work protect us against disinformation operations or voter suppression?

How about publishing accessible “annual reports,” where journalists tell their audiences simply and directly how their reporting has been helpful this year? How have real people benefited from your reporting? What did you do for the community? If “the watchdog of democracy” remains a vague term with little to do with people’s lives, no one will care when it crumbles.

Educating the public about the role of journalism in society requires deliberate efforts and sincerity, and that’s easier said than done. But there’s no way around it: The risk is just too great, and other strategies have been proven futile. Even if the media industry takes urgent steps like diversifying newsrooms and empowering local media, the populist media bashing won’t go away. Ignoring it is not a sustainable way forward.

For all their flaws, the majority of the journalists I speak to genuinely and overwhelmingly believe in journalism. However, they don’t usually stop to ask themselves why — and they certainly don’t turn to discuss it with their audiences.

Educating people on what journalism is and should be — how it benefits ordinary people every day, what it can save us from — should be the job of vital democratic education, not journalists. At the moment, however, this type of education doesn’t exist in many democratic societies. Journalists can no longer wait for others to change it. Neither can we. Journalists should lead the way, but those among us who still believe in it should follow suit.

By advocating for journalism, we would gain another substantial side benefit: re-orienting the news media to the real-world concrete value that they contribute to society. What is it that is so important about your work? And what did you really achieve for the people you claim to serve at the end of the day?

For too many years, ratings and traffic replaced journalists’ concerns with the added value they provide to their audiences. By trying to deliver PR for journalism, journalists might find that they themselves should dramatically alter their priorities, if they are to make a public case for journalism and why it (still) matters.

Ayala Panievsky is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Cambridge.

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