PR, Journalism, Propaganda; What Is the Difference and Where Is the Line?

By Rosie Alger
Sports Editor

With political strife at our front door and information being circulated more quickly and shared more widely than ever before, trained and capable journalists are even more necessary to public welfare than usual. There are so many ways to publish information, but real journalism shouldn’t be difficult to spot, and advertising material shouldn’t look like news.

So what is journalism, really, and how is it different from public relations material? Journalists are independent. They write to spread knowledge to a general audience and are not serving a company or wider organization’s interests.

Jacqueline Rogers at the Public Relations Student Society of America said, “The objectives for a PR practitioner are very different than those of a journalist.”

PR has a goal. It is designed to sell something, or make the audience change their mind about something. Rodgers said that PR is used to “change the public’s attitudes and behaviors to benefit a certain organization or cause. Since PR practitioners have a more precise message to convey, their audience is carefully selected and segmented for optimal public reaction.”

Why is it so important to distinguish journalism and protect it as its own genre? The reason why we as a nation value freedom of speech and freedom of the press so highly is that it prevents governmental institutions from using independent journalists as their own personal PR material. Governmental PR masquerading as journalism is called propaganda, and it is often used by abusive leaders or dictators to maintain control and silence discontent.

Threats of propaganda and censored news are very real in the U.S. today. According to Piers Robinson at the Centre for Research of Globalization, “We are also witnessing a worrying increase in organized attempts to silence dissenting voices here in the West.

It is likely that these, and similar activities, are contributing to a significant restriction of freedom of expression here in the West, as well as across non-liberal democratic states, and are inhibiting news media from performing their expected roles as watchdogs and truth seekers.”

Journalists as watchdogs are, and always have been, a critical power check on those who run our governmental institutions. Even in our own community at Washington College, having The Elm as an independent publication allows student journalists to keep an honest eye on decisions being made and challenge leaders when necessary. This is a crucial way for student voices to be heard on campus. If The Elm were to be run by a branch of the College administration, The Elm would lose its ability to be a watchdog for WC, and would lose its credibility as true journalism.

Propaganda, and PR framing itself as journalism are not always as easy to spot as you might think. Robinson also said, “As a form of coercion, aimed at controlling what journalists write and say, threats and attacks can be understood as a form of propaganda: as a kind of ‘propaganda of the deed’ they function not only to silence individual journalists but also to send an unequivocal message to other journalists.”

It may be hard to believe that journalists in the U.S. still receive threats, but it happens all the time. This is why it is crucial to protect freedom of the press. We cannot allow ourselves to be persuaded by ‘fake news,’ or emotionally charged PR tactics that masquerade as unbiased fact. There is nothing wrong with advertising for a company or organization, but when that advertising is confused with journalism, truth-seekers everywhere pay the cost. Let’s keep journalism independent and honest, especially at WC.


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