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Ethics in Journalism and Public Relations: It’s Personal

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed (or published); everything else is Public Relations.” – Attributed to George Orwell

That quote by author George Orwell has been making the rounds on the internet and social media for the last decade. I saw it on a friend’s social media feed recently. The problem is nobody can seem to be sure he actually said it. Some sources just take it as the gospel that he did. Others on the internet call it into question, but can’t provide any evidence to the contrary.

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

That lies at the heart of the great dilemma facing both journalists and public relations practitioners in the age of the internet and social media. How do you know what to believe anymore, and who is making 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, and the last 15 or so in public relations. In my estimation, the majority of journalists and public relations practitioners are committed to telling the truth. Most news outlets have a Code of Ethics, as does PRSA.

I can also honestly say that I’ve seen examples from both professions of people who were so determined to tell their version of the truth that they forgot the importance of fairness and avoiding personal interests – two values that are basic tenets of ethics.

And herein lies the problem for both journalism and public relations professions, which goes back decades, maybe hundreds of years – back to when muckrakers would sacrifice the truth for the sake of selling papers. Today, the truth can be clouded in the interest of getting clicks on a web story.

So, whose job is it to police the truth? Well, the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 likely muddied the waters a bit. While that FCC rule applied mainly to broadcast news, the idea that both sides of a story deserve to be told seems to be lost in modern day political journalism and the “quest for clicks.”

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

Back to the supposed Orwell quote – if journalism AND public relations is all about getting people to read or watch our version of a story, and not about the search for truth, is there any difference between journalism and public relations? I’d submit that both have an ethical duty to tell the truth and to manage the consequences.

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

Scott Brooks
Tennessee Valley Authority

In his 30+ years of experience in public relations and journalism, Brooks has seen self-interest and unfairness attempt to misguide judgment in the search for truth. He emphasizes that every single one of us, not just those in public relations or journalism, has a duty to ask questions and look for the truth in everything.

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