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Fighting against PR spin machines

Maybe it has always been this way, and communication is just so much faster these days that I am more aware of it than I used to be. Maybe I was naive and had tunnel vision as a younger reporter and did not know what was happening around me.

In any case, what is happening now is slapping me in the face.

Those who hope news reports will paint them in the most favorable light possible are bolder than ever, it seems to me.

From my perspective, some of it crosses a line we newspaper people try very hard to keep in place.

One example recently came when a reporter let me know he had left a news conference with a bit of frustration at realizing how heavily the reporters in the room were manipulated. A person he only later realized was a public relations guy casually approached him and let him know there would be a question-and-answer session after the announcements and speakers. And, oh, hey, by the way, why don’t you ask (question) of (a specific person)? That caught the reporter off guard. He didn’t love the idea, but also didn’t give it much thought because it was a question he planned to ask anyway.

It was only as the question-and-answer session got moving that he and the other reporters in the room became uneasy, as it was quickly painfully obvious that each and every one of them had been asked to ask a certain question of a specified individual on the stage.

They had ALMOST been played. But reporters aren’t stupid people. They sorted out what had been attempted faster than the question-planter probably expected.

Another frustration comes when public officials, during public meetings, say or so something as part of the proceedings and then — once the word or deed is part of public record — look over to the reporter in the room and say “don’t put that in the paper,” or “don’t write that down.” For goodness sake, folks. It’s a public meeting. You would think elected officials would have figured out what that means by now, but such quick attempts at opacity are also becoming more common.

Then there are the elected officials or big corporate types who believe they have the power to dictate coverage or opinion page content. It is becoming more common for me to get calls from such people frustrated we did not present a particular news item in a way that favored them; or even letting me know they are unhappy with decision-making such as the timing of a story … or maybe even not running an item at all.

It is almost as though these folks have forgotten it is our job NOT to have an agenda; not to take a side in our news coverage (opinion page material is a different matter, of course); not to play gotcha or, on the other hand, polish someone’s image a bit.

A reporter’s job is to deliver the facts, as fairly and with as many sides of the story presented as possible. If those facts make a person look good, great. If those facts make a person look not so good, it is vital for them to understand it was their own behavior that cast them in a bad light, not the reporting of that behavior. To get back to that faster communication, there are memes suggesting that, if you do not want to see something posted on social media … don’t do it.

The same is true of newspapers.

Maybe if some of the folks who think of us as public relations writers understood our priorities, it would be easier for them to avoid such mistakes.

Our job is to inform you. We have careers because we produce a publication you can trust. If we destroy that trust, we have nothing. We bend over backwards to maintain it, no matter what new challenges rise to make it more difficult.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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