If this were a State of the Union address, the takeaway may appear disheartening: the state of government-media relations is not strong. In fact, it never has been a harmonious relationship and appears to be getting worse due to a variety of factors.
All government employees, as well as the general public, should understand the essence of what lies beneath the surface here. If the government-media relationship were a marriage, there could well be grounds for divorce based on irreconcilable differences.
The Founding Fathers most likely intended the news media to be a watchdog — not a lapdog — on government and industry malfeasance. That is a fundamental aspect of the Constitutional guarantee to freedom of the press, as enshrined in the First Amendment. It is what separates a free and independent news media from the auspices of State control that is commonplace in communist and authoritarian regimes worldwide.
However, the fact is that American government-media relations have historically been rocky. This was the case before and after the invention of an advanced printing press during the Industrial Revolution. During the late 1890s, newspapers were accused of “yellow journalism”. In the early 20th century, investigative reporters were dubbed “muckrakers”.
During the Watergate era, the Nixon Administration lashed out at the press, castigating the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism”. In fact, journalists still have one of the lowest public approval ratings of any profession.
The truth is — for better or worse — that the often adversarial nature of the government-media relationship is ingrained in the very practice of American journalism. Ironically, the back and forth, tug-of-war, cat and mouse interaction between the government and media is an integral aspect of a functionally effective free press in a democratic society.
The question is to what extent does adversarial become abusive and self-defeating to the goal of providing accurate and timely information to the public? Where are the new lines drawn between good and bad journalism?
Journalists and government communicators should try to reach some semblance of agreement, if at all possible, on the following questions which will define their relationship in the digital age:
1) Where to draw the line between a beneficial media watchdog and a pernicious pitbull?
2) Where to draw the line between full government transparency versus flackery and spin?
As the new media landscape continues to evolve in unforeseen ways, traditionally accepted lines of distinction have become more blurry. Yes, there is good journalism out there, but it’s just harder to find.
Today’s never ending 24/7 news cycle lends itself to a “shoot first, ask questions later” media mentality. Advancements in online, digital and mobile technology have led some media outlets to break news even before key facts are known — regardless of objectivity.
Therefore, getting a story out first may increasingly take precedence over getting a story out correctly. Why? To beat the circus-like competition associated with the morphing of news and entertainment into “infotainment”.
The bottom line still comes down to ratings and revenue, albeit to a greater extent today because corporate America owns, operates and influences major media outlets nationwide as never before — ranging from old media to new media.
Conundrum for Gov Communicators
The new media environment is arguably more problematic for today’s government communicators than the old media climate of the prior century. The goal of providing accurate and timely information to better inform the citizenry may be compromised by 21st century media “muckrakers” who practice their own brand of “yellow journalism.”
This can leave government communicators in a conundrum.
With the rise of new media and the merging of news, opinion and entertainment, even the most exemplary and well executed government communications plans won’t necessarily produce the intended results — particularly if reporters reject time-honored journalism and ethical standards.
Moreover, even the best government spokespeople may not succeed in getting their agency’s message out if today’s journalists are biased from the outset against government as an institution, or base their reporting on the whims of the “Blogosphere” and online chatter.
Wild West of Journalism?
Therefore, government communicators arguably have an even more critical role to play today by getting the truth out in an unfiltered fashion; an increasing challenge. One answer may be maximizing the use of social media platforms to bypass traditional media and engage citizens/stakeholders directly.
In essence, today’s media rules and standards are more fluid than ever and may resemble the Wild West of journalism compared to the past two centuries. In short, too often anything goes and there’s little or no media accountability.
This problematic development in 21st century journalism has unintended consequences for government communicators, the media and news consumers alike.
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* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.