Given the utter lack of independent media reports* on the MLS preseason, I figured now would be a good time as any to bring up an issue discussed during my Advanced News Writing class last semester.
(*By independent, I mean any reporting done by media not affiliated with MLSnet.com or any other official MLS club site.)
The question: will public relations eventually overtake journalism as the primary medium to which the public receives its information?
The line is certainly blurring. If you're in the Boston-metro region, just listen to WEEI, or read any local newspaper to discover that the vast majority of commentary surrounding the area's pro clubs is slanted favorably, rather than critically. Apparently, success breeds fondness in the journalistic arena as well.
Why is this? Well, it's easy. For starters, it's easy to say and print nice things when things are going great. It's human nature. But for journalists in particular, there's also the old saying: don't bite the hand that feeds you. With communications departments growing and newspapers dying, those very communication suits know they wield alot more power than they did twenty years ago. A lot more. A journalist who writes uncompromising columns may find his or her access to the team suddenly limited, thus making his or her job more difficult.
I've said it before. Although I'm sure the idea isn't especially original, I'll state it here anyway: sport success hampers critical sports journalism.
If a team is successful, the natural inclination is to report and emphasize on the spoils. The public wants it. The organization wants it, too. Because every inch of newspaper or white screen space that's filled with positives leaves less room for the negatives.
And there are negatives. Always. Even the most successful team has a collection of skeletons in its closets that it wants no journalist getting even the faintest sniff of. No organization, sports or otherwise, is squeaky clean. A good journalist will know where and how to find the negatives, if he or she is willing to give a critical account of any story. But he or she has to ask the questions 1. Will my editor approve?, and 2. How will this affect my relationship with the organization?
The second query is the most troublesome. Most editors have an understanding of the writer's plight. The truth, whether good or bad, is always out there. Even if that truth is ugly or unflattering, it does exist. A good editor will encourage his writers to find these truths, good, bad, or ugly.
The problem then becomes whether a piece will offend the organization, and if so, the consequences.
I can tell you from personal experience that some clubs employ the use of "special lists" comprised of journalists who receive "bonus" information aside from the general press releases. More often than not - though not all, mind you - these are the same journalists who essentially provide lip service on behalf of the organization. Spin control, if you will. Seven game slide? Not the coach's fault. It's injuries. Striker's embarrassing performance? Not his fault - he tweaked a hamstring. And so on.
Curiously, this is especially true in American soccer, despite the fact that the number of soccer journalists are easily surpassed by their colleagues in the Big Four. Why this is can only be attributed to the same personal and professional battles waged for the past 90 years.
So with the power clearly in the communications field, and more independent media dying by the day, what can journalists do?
Easy: the job that their profession calls for. I know that's blunt and oversimplified, and often difficult in a world where journalism's pulse seems to be growing fainter by the day. But all journalists, in theory, abide by a code - an ethical code we learned when many of us took our first journalism classes. It advises us to be, in a nutshell, thorough, honest, and accountable. Sometimes, those criteria clash with an organization's image. Tough.
For journalists, it all boils down to "what's easy" versus "what's right." It's easy to accentuate the positives. The organization will give you all the information you need, and then some. It's difficult, and sometimes torturous, to shed light on the negatives. Journalists often find little to no cooperation in those types of endeavors.
But the reward associated with abiding by that code, sticking to one's guns, and reporting on the truth gives any respectable journalist something that even the most fortressed PR department cannot take away: the personal satisfaction of a job well-executed.