by George Beres
(Swans - August 1, 2005) Long personal experience taught me the distinction between public relations and journalism. In the 1950s, I earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Medill at Northwestern University, the finest in the nation. I feel I wasted that training by spending most of the next 30 years as a public relations man.
I did publicity and promotions for intercollegiate athletics, first at Northwestern, then at the University of Oregon. It was a benign version of the real travesty, with our lies usually being to add an inch or two to a player's height, or 10 or 15 pounds to his weight, or to withhold information about a key player's injury. It was done at the insistence of coaches who thought the changes could give them some hidden advantage.
That was petty. It's not petty when your government hires a public relations firm to change its image, as corporations and politicians long have done. Now it hits close to home for me with welcome announcement of the biggest gift ever to the University of Oregon School of Journalism. Just over two-thirds of it is earmarked for starting a journalism program away from the Eugene campus, at the University's Portland Center.
No problem there -- until one learns early focus of the grant is to be a master's degree program in public relations. That's playing a dangerous game with words -- suggesting public relations has anything to do with journalism.
It gets serious when those at our universities entrusted with developing journalists are willing to make synonymous two disciplines whose goals are antithetical. Definitions may vary. But few journalists would argue with one defining their work as getting facts on matters of public concern and presenting them in a straightforward, honest way.
An underlying guideline is that journalists represent the public interest, so are responsible to dig for information when the power structure attempts to hide it. Public relations in contrast, essentially operates on behalf of a client, using facts selectively to paint as attractive an image as possible. Occasionally that may involve lies.
No real problem there if it does not conflict with truth-in-advertising.
So long as the public recognizes the distinction between the truth-seeker and the image-creator, there's no real concern. The problem develops at the very root of the situation, when teachers tell our journalism students and the rest of us that those who learn public relations skills also are journalists.
That is what is happening. We see it in the very names of our educational programs, which at most schools today are listed as "School of Journalism & Communications." How very sly. Just add a word to the name, and you justify being able to lump public relations, advertising, promotions, et al. with journalism.
Few journalism administrators are willing to address the question publicly. Privately, several have told me putting P.R. into Journalism is a gimmick dictated by money state schools derive from the number of students enrolled. Since P.R. has the reputation of paying better, most students today choose to enroll in P.R.
Significant journalists have reinforced my contention. The late Fred Friendly, who was a valued assistant to Edward R. Murrow decades ago, told me "It is a sham that Journalism education has any connections to public relations." During my visit with NPR's Daniel Schorr, he said the same thing. A recent Medill dean, Ken Bode, favored me with a private interview during his short time in the dean's chair, and said: "I agree with you. But I'm too new here to begin rocking the boat in such a fundamental way."
The identity problem will persist so long as our public funding for education falls short, and journalism educators choose to use naming solutions for larger problems. That choice keeps journalism headed down a slope to a meaningless identity.
The University of Oregon could start a corrective effort by choosing to teach journalism, not public relations, at its Portland Center. All schools could help by following one of their basic guidelines, conciseness: drop that unnecessary word, Communications.