Will journalists’ flight toward PR mean the end of reportorial integrity?
By Brad Jacobson, Columbia Journalism Review
16 June 2009
Former CNN correspondent-turned-PR consultant Gene Randall's video "report" for oil giant Chevron might be unprecedented for how it blurred the line between public relations and journalism. But the Randall-Chevron production raises not only ethical questions, but also the question of whether a surge of newly pink-slipped reporters might go, as one media critic put it, "over to the dark side" and how that might further muddy the line between news and corporate advocacy.
As detailed in a recent New York Times article, when Chevron, America's third largest corporation, heard that 60 Minutes was preparing a report about the $27 billion lawsuit filed against it for allegedly contaminating the Ecuador region of the Amazon rain forest, Chevron hired former TV newsman Randall to craft a video from the corporation's perspective, which was posted on YouTube and Chevron's Web site three weeks before the 60 Minutes report aired on May 3.
60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley's investigation presented multiple perspectives while Randall's included only Chevron officials and consultants. Everyone interviewed in Randall's piece, in other words, was paid by Chevron, including Randall himself.
Randall's video also clearly strives to resemble an authentic news report, employing classic stylistic TV news techniques, while never informing the viewer it's a Chevron production. Most deceptive, however, is that Randall-looking like the consummate TV newsman-begins the video with the accompanying graphic "Gene Randall Reporting" and concludes with the voiceover: "This is Gene Randall reporting."
Yet Randall, who was laid off from CNN in 2001 and runs the corporate consulting firm Gene Randall Enterprises, told The New York Times, "This is not a news report. This is a client hiring a provider to tell its side of the story." Moreover, speaking with the National Journal Online, he said, "I don't portray it as a piece of journalism, but I used journalistic techniques in telling Chevron's side of the story." (Reached by phone, Randall declined to comment for this article.)
Author and media critic Norman Solomon thought it was absolutely "deceptive" for Randall "to sign off with the claim that he's been ‘reporting.'"
"And the whole effort by Chevron is just another attempt at media spin by a huge corporation with plenty to hide - with the added twist of hiring a former journalist to implicitly pretend that he's being a journalist while flaking for Chevron to defend the indefensible," Solomon wrote in an e-mail interview.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training center in Florida, agreed that Randall's use of the word "reporting" in the video was clearly intended to mislead.
"I guarantee you that is intentional," McBride said in a phone interview. "He was hired to imitate journalism and that's what he did." Yet she was not surprised to see it and expected such techniques to become increasingly prevalent because of today's ease of distribution.
"You can just put it up on YouTube now and if you can get it to go viral, you can easily trick your audience into thinking this is an authentic news report," said McBride.
Steve Rendall, senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a national media watch group, found Randall's defense "disingenuous" and a distortion of the truth. "He is technically using some journalistic techniques...but in a selective and biased way," Rendall explained in a phone interview.
Solomon also saw Randall's approach as part of a broader effort by Chevron to exploit the air of credibility that journalism and venerable news outlets can lend, pointing to its relationship with PBS's NewsHour:
"Under Jim Lehrer, the NewsHour takes big bucks from Chevron and then allows Chevron to be, in effect, part of the program every night - presenting itself as imbued with a civic spirit, environmentally committed, noble and all-around good neighbors of everyone on the planet."
McBride said that as more corporations begin to package public relations and publicity messages in news formats, unemployed journalists flocking to corporate PR jobs are not the only cause for concern.
"Even if we weren't having the economic crisis in journalism...but we still had the same opening of the floodgates of information [via online social media], I think that it would be happening," McBride explained.
Rendall hopes that "media economics would not cause an exodus of journalists going over to the dark side" but believes "it's inevitable that we'll see some of that."
Whatever the future holds, McBride said, "As a society we are going to have to educate ourselves about what's really news and what is information that's meant to do something different than news."
With a burgeoning army of out-of-work journalists to lure with lucrative PR contracts and the simultaneous explosion of viral media, corporations are well positioned to gain from journalism's loss.
A legion of Gene Randalls "reporting" is certainly an unsettling future.