Ethics in journalism and public relations: it’s personal

“Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want to print (or publish); everything else is public relations. – Attributed to George Orwell

This quote from author George Orwell has been making the rounds on the internet and social media for the past decade. I saw it recently on a friend’s social media. The problem is that no one seems to be sure he actually said it. Some sources simply take it as the gospel he did. Others on the internet question it but can’t offer any evidence to the contrary.

But if Orwell didn’t say it, or something like that, does that make the quote inaccurate? Or is “close enough” indeed close enough?

This is at the heart of the great dilemma facing journalists and public relations practitioners in the age of the internet and social media. How do you still know what to believe, and who makes the rules about “truth”?

Next question – Why talk about it now? September is Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America. I’m the ethics officer for the Volunteer PRSA chapter in Knoxville.

In my 30 years as an adult in the workforce, I’ve been on both sides – 15 years as a journalist in broadcast and print media, and the last 15 years or so in public relations. In my opinion, the majority of journalists and public relations practitioners are committed to telling the truth. Most media have a code of ethics, as does PRSA.

I can also honestly say that I have seen examples in both professions of people so determined to tell their side of the truth that they have forgotten the importance of fairness and avoiding self-interest – two values ​​that are fundamental principles of ethics.

And therein lies the problem for the professions of journalism and public relations, which goes back decades, if not hundreds of years – to the days when muckrakers sacrifice truth to sell newspapers. Today, the truth can be obscured for the sake of getting web story clicks.

So, whose job is it to control the truth? Well, the demise of the equity doctrine in 1987 probably confused things a bit. While this FCC rule applied primarily to broadcast news, the idea that both sides of a story are worth telling seems to be lost in modern political journalism and the quest for clicks.

In public relations, we are often accused of being biased towards our employers and clients. In fact, part of our job is to tell the stories we think are best for those we represent. But I believe most PR professionals are able to draw the line when it comes to telling the truth.

Scott Brooks is a senior public relations representative at the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Back to the supposed quote from Orwell – if journalism AND public relations is about getting people to read or watch our side of a story, and not about seeking the truth, is there a difference between the journalism and public relations? I would argue that both have an ethical duty to tell the truth and deal with the consequences.

So who decides? At the very least, I think we all have a duty to ask questions and seek the truth in everything. Socrates said it best – “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I found this on the internet, so it must be true.

Scott Brooks is a senior public relations representative at the Tennessee Valley Authority. He is an accomplished journalist and public relations professional with expertise in media relations, print and broadcast journalism, and strategic communications. Scott is currently the Ethics Officer for the Volunteer Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

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