Traditional journalists have long been defined by their independence and integrity, beholden to no one but the public, producing the news without fear or favor.
But lately, with trust of American media already at an all-time low, media are being complicit in their own decline, undermining their authenticity and trustworthiness by allowing publicists to pose as reporters and blurring the line between editorial content and paid advertising.
One of the more egregious abuses of the journalism standard is at Metro, the Portland area’s regional elected government, where a former Hillsboro Argus news writer pretends to be a “reporter” providing “objective, written news coverage” of Metro. Metro created the position in 2010, insisting that the new hire would provide “objective, written news coverage” of the agency. The “reporter” would get style, spelling and other editorial support, but could decide what topics to pursue and would not have his or her work edited for content.
The eventual hire, Nick Christensen, came from the Hillsboro Argus, where he had covered Metro and western Washington County. Pror to that he served as managing editor of the Summerlin Home News near Las Vegas and as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.
Now reporting to Metro’s Communications Director, Jim Middaugh, Christensen is referred to as “Metro News editor” and as a “news reporter” for Metro on the agency’s website.
Access by a true reporter to the inner corridors of power can translate into aggressive, groundbreaking, fiery media stories, but it’s not likely that Metro’s in-house “reporter” will produce such stories. It’s clear from a review of his prosaic, process-oriented writing to date reveals that he’s not going to be a Woodward or Bernstein exposing seamy government practices or, for that matter, an investigative reporter in the tradition of the journalists at Willamette Week who exposed Neil Goldschmidt’s rape of a 14-year-old babysitter.
Instead, Christensen’s stories are carefully crafted press releases masquerading as independent news reporting. Metro even asks, “In the interest of disclosure to readers”, that media attribute content from Christensen‘s (stories) to him and identify him as a news reporter for Metro.
Making things worse, local media, including the Portland Business Journal, Willamette Week and the Portland Tribune have bought into Metro’s ruse, frequently citing Christensen’s comments as those of a reporter. This even though Middaugh has admitted that Christensen’s work is “definitely public relations”. Middaugh has justified Christensen’s identification as a “reporter” on the basis that government has a responsibility to keep people informed in the face of public cynicism, apparently unaware that misleading the public feeds that cynicism.
Christensen’s stories are, let’s be honest, the equivalent of advertising disguised as news. In that respect, he fits right in with the deliberate blurring of the divide between advertising and editorial content that’s going on across the media landscape, eroding public trust in journalism.
In case you haven’t noticed, digital and print media are increasingly featuring sponsored content, or “native advertising” created or developed by a business or special interest seeking to influence viewers.
In a prominent case, The Atlantic magazine found itself in the middle of a reputation debacle in January 2013 when it featured a native advertisement package submitted by the Church of Scientology which, though identified as “sponsor content,” looked otherwise like a regular story.
The Internet exploded with negative comments, some criticizing The Atlantic for promoting the controversial Church of Scientology, but more for allowing paid advertising to be subtly disguised as editorial content.
To put it simply, the news business is slowly being corrupted by practices like native advertising and media’s willingness to go along with things like Metro’s attempt to pass Christensen off as a reporter. If it isn’t controlled, readers’ trust will be lost.
So, let’s all get on the same page here and call a P.R. guy a P.R. guy. For Metro, that would be good P.R.