Whenever I explain the difference between journalism and public relations to my students, I offer up the following scenario:
Imagine that your college announces it is raising tuition (something many colleges are doing due to drops in government funding). The public relations office issues a press release about the increase. What do you imagine that release will say?
Well, if your college is anything like mine, it will probably stress how modest the increase is, and how the school still remains very affordable. It'll probably also talk about how the hike was absolutely necessary in the face of continuing funding cuts, and so on.
The release may even have a quote or two from the president of the college saying how much he/she regrets having to pass the ever-increasing cost of running the place on to students, and how the raise was kept as modest as possible.
All of this may be perfectly true. But who do you think won't be quoted in the college press release?
Students, of course. The people who will be affected most by the hike are the very ones who won't have a say.
Why not? Because what do you think students are likely to think? They're likely to say the increase is a horrible idea and will only make it more difficult for them to take classes there.
So if you're reporter for the student newspaper assigned to write an article about the tuition hike, whom should you interview? Obviously you should talk to the college president and any of the other officials involved.
But you should also talk to students. A lot of them. Because the story isn't complete without interviewing the people who are most affected by the action being taken. That goes for tuition increases, or factory layoffs, or for anyone else who's ever been hurt by the actions of a large institution. That's called getting both sides of the story.
And therein lies the difference between public relations and journalism. Public relations is designed to put the most positive spin on anything done by an institution like a college, a company or a government agency. It's designed to make the entity look as wonderful as possible, even if the action being taken - the tuition increase - is anything but.
Journalism, on the other hand, isn't about making institutions or individuals look good or bad. It's about portraying them in a realistic light, good, bad or otherwise. So if the college does something good - for instance, offering free tuition to local people who have been laid off - then your coverage should reflect that.
But if the institution does something that will affect its customers adversely - raising tuition - then your coverage should reflect the negative aspects of that action.
All of this would've seemed very obvious to the baby boomer generation that came of age in the 1960s. That was a generation of young people who grew up accustomed to questioning authority, whether it be a university, a corporation or the government.
College students of today, however are very different. They've come of age in a time in which it's much less common to challenge those in power. It's not that they won't do it; it's just that it doesn't come as naturally to them as it did to their parents or grandparents.
I see this in my journalism classes. Every semester I have to explain to my students why it's important to question powerful institutions and individuals, even if, on the surface at least, those entities appear benevolent.
It's important for journalists to question those in power because that's part of our primary mission: to serve as a kind of adversarial watchdog keeping an eye on the activities of the powerful, to try and ensure that they don't abuse that power.
Unfortunately, in recent years public relations has become more powerful and ubiquitous even as newsrooms across the country have laid off thousands of reporters. So while there are more and more PR agents (reporters call them flacks) pushing positive spin, there are fewer and fewer journalists there to challenge them.
But that's why, for the reporters who are left, it's more important than ever that they do their jobs, and do them well. It's simple: We are here to tell the truth.