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The dirty little secret of journalism: embracing the power of PR?

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Abstract
News on health-related issues is of growing importance. However, it often seems this news is dominated by pharmaceutical stakeholders and research institutions. Over the past decennia, several studies demonstrated that traditional practices of newsgathering and sourcing were dominant. In health journalism, journalists generally lack the scientific background to monitor the importance and quality of the offered news. Therefore they depend largely on information supplied by PR practitioners from universities, research centers and the pharmaceutical industry. However, research states that the PR nature is less clear or even hidden, which makes the influence of experts of the academic and pharmaceutical industry perhaps stronger. The purpose of this research is to highlight the increasing importance and impact of PR practitioners and their work on journalistic routines of news selection and sourcing. Our intentions are to uncover the relationship between journalists and PR practitioners and reveal the impact of advertisers on journalistic content by using a multi-method approach combining quantitative and qualitative methodology. Initially, we attempted to paint a general picture of the sourcing practices of Belgian magazine journalists by conducting a quantitative content analysis, limited to health news in Belgian weeklies and women’s magazines produced in the period between March and June 2013. The data include the contents of news articles from 22 different Belgian magazines as well as advertorial and commercial content from those magazines. We selected 1422 items, health news, advertisements and advertorials included. Editorial content enclosed 1047 items, while specific commercial content encircled in 375 items. To contextualize the findings of our content analysis, we conducted 16 in-depth interviews with the complete population of leading journalists for those health features on and some of their editors in chief. In those interviews, we asked our respondents about their perceptions of the importance of health news, the topics, their professional role, sourcing practices, use of PR input, relationship with the advertisers and attitudes towards PR content. We presented them a sample of the news stories they wrote themselves during the past month and asked them to reconstruct the writing and sourcing processes to retrieve the indirect role of information supplied by PR. All interviews were either digitally recorded and transcribed, and were conducted face-to-face or by Skype conversation. Our analysis was carried out using Nvivo software. In our results, we notice an existing interdependency between journalists and PR practitioners as the latter are considered an important source of information, although PR is treated with much more vigilance than any other information source. PR input and other forms of pre-packaged content are contemplated as a valuable contribution to the broad panoply of sources journalists are confronted with on a daily basis. In order to save time and resources, reliance on information provided by PR practitioners is increasing according to the respondents in our in-depth interviews. Furthermore, our data confirm as well that commercial pressure led to different journalistic routines and a stronger relationship between journalists and PR. Economic difficulties and crises within the media procured the incorporation of copy-pasting techniques. Our respondents state clearly that, due to the so-called ‘media crisis’, the commercial departments receive more input in editorial content, yet not directly. Mainly, the inner working pattern follows two directions. Or the agenda of the magazine is send to the advertiser, who can adjust his advertisements to the editorial content, or journalists anticipate the needs of the advertisers by covering health-related issues close to the agenda of the advertiser himself. Subsequently, pre-packaged news from universities, research centers, (pharmaceutical) companies and nonprofit institutions is nowadays perceived as less distrustful and more helpful to journalistic practices. Yet, while the journalists admit that editing press releases is part of their daily routines, verbatim copy-pasting is rather scarce. The majority of the health journalists admits editorial content is rather a mixture of information from pre-packaged content and information added by the journalists themselves by doing in-depth interviews, doing additional face-to-face interviews, searching for other research reports,… Although several benefits lower the barriers to use pre-packaged content since PR practitioners often promise contact with authoritative experts and scientists, exclusive data,…
Keywords
sourcing practices, health journalism, news production, news access, public-relations, pharmaceutical industry

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Chicago
De Dobbelaer, Rebeca, and Karin Raeymaeckers. 2016. “The Dirty Little Secret of Journalism: Embracing the Power of PR?” In Etmaal Van De Communicatiewetenschap 2016, Abstracts.
APA
De Dobbelaer, R., & Raeymaeckers, K. (2016). The dirty little secret of journalism: embracing the power of PR? Etmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap 2016, Abstracts. Presented at the Etmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap 2016.
Vancouver
1.
De Dobbelaer R, Raeymaeckers K. The dirty little secret of journalism: embracing the power of PR? Etmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap 2016, Abstracts. 2016.
MLA
De Dobbelaer, Rebeca, and Karin Raeymaeckers. “The Dirty Little Secret of Journalism: Embracing the Power of PR?” Etmaal Van De Communicatiewetenschap 2016, Abstracts. 2016. Print.
@inproceedings{7010812,
  abstract     = {News on health-related issues is of growing importance. However, it often seems this news is dominated by pharmaceutical stakeholders and research institutions. Over the past decennia, several studies demonstrated that traditional practices of newsgathering and sourcing were dominant. In health journalism, journalists generally lack the scientific background to monitor the importance and quality of the offered news. Therefore they depend largely on information supplied by PR practitioners from universities, research centers and the pharmaceutical industry. However, research states that the PR nature is less clear or even hidden, which makes the influence of experts of the academic and pharmaceutical industry perhaps stronger. The purpose of this research is to highlight the increasing importance and impact of PR practitioners and their work on journalistic routines of news selection and sourcing. Our intentions are to uncover the relationship between journalists and PR practitioners and reveal the impact of advertisers on journalistic content by using a multi-method approach combining quantitative and qualitative methodology. 

Initially, we attempted to paint a general picture of the sourcing practices of Belgian magazine journalists by conducting a quantitative content analysis, limited to health news in Belgian weeklies and women{\textquoteright}s magazines produced in the period between March and June 2013. The data include the contents of news articles from 22 different Belgian magazines as well as advertorial and commercial content from those magazines. We selected 1422 items, health news, advertisements and advertorials included. Editorial content enclosed 1047 items, while specific commercial content encircled in 375 items. To contextualize the findings of our content analysis, we conducted 16 in-depth interviews with the complete population of leading journalists for those health features on and some of their editors in chief. In those interviews, we asked our respondents about their perceptions of the importance of health news, the topics, their professional role, sourcing practices, use of PR input, relationship with the advertisers and attitudes towards PR content. We presented them a sample of the news stories they wrote themselves during the past month and asked them to reconstruct the writing and sourcing processes to retrieve the indirect role of information supplied by PR. All interviews were either digitally recorded and transcribed, and were conducted face-to-face or by Skype conversation. Our analysis was carried out using Nvivo software.

In our results, we notice an existing interdependency between journalists and PR practitioners as the latter are considered an important source of information, although PR is treated with much more vigilance than any other information source. PR input and other forms of pre-packaged content are contemplated as a valuable contribution to the broad panoply of sources journalists are confronted with on a daily basis. In order to save time and resources, reliance on information provided by PR practitioners is increasing according to the respondents in our in-depth interviews. Furthermore, our data confirm as well that commercial pressure led to different journalistic routines and a stronger relationship between journalists and PR. Economic difficulties and crises within the media procured the incorporation of copy-pasting techniques. Our respondents state clearly that, due to the so-called {\textquoteleft}media crisis{\textquoteright}, the commercial departments receive more input in editorial content, yet not directly. Mainly, the inner working pattern follows two directions. Or the agenda of the magazine is send to the advertiser, who can adjust his advertisements to the editorial content, or journalists anticipate the needs of the advertisers by covering health-related issues close to the agenda of the advertiser himself. Subsequently, pre-packaged news from universities, research centers, (pharmaceutical) companies and nonprofit institutions is nowadays perceived as less distrustful and more helpful to journalistic practices. Yet, while the journalists admit that editing press releases is part of their daily routines, verbatim copy-pasting is rather scarce. The majority of the health journalists admits editorial content is rather a mixture of information from pre-packaged content and information added by the journalists themselves by doing in-depth interviews, doing additional face-to-face interviews, searching for other research reports,{\textellipsis} Although several benefits lower the barriers to use pre-packaged content since PR practitioners often promise contact with authoritative experts and scientists, exclusive data,{\textellipsis}},
  author       = {De Dobbelaer, Rebeca and Raeymaeckers, Karin},
  booktitle    = {Etmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap 2016, Abstracts},
  language     = {eng},
  location     = {Amsterdam, The Netherlands},
  title        = {The dirty little secret of journalism: embracing the power of PR?},
  year         = {2016},
}