There is a report today in the Guardian covering the 'news' that various PR groups are changing images of areas (such as the country Rwanda) by giving journalists huge freebies (such as holidays to Rwanda) and then getting them to write about it. Of course they are. PR companies are experts in changing the opinions of the general public on people/places/organisations - that is what they are paid to do. I do not have a problem with this, PR is a good thing, it can change lives and educate people on certain topics. The problem with this sponsored article writing is clear, only one view is being represented by the journalists involved as they are being 'paid' (through the freebies) to represent the people/place/organisation. This leads to an unbalanced article being reported - the journalist more than likely wouldn't have come to the same conclusions if they had been simply told by their boss to 'go and write a report on Rwanda'. Further, it leads to inaccuracies being reported, the reporters are reporting what they are told by the groups they are set up with by the PR company (the Guardian article nicely explains how inaccurate reports on corruption in Rwanda were reported).
The other side of the argument is that without the push from the PR company there wouldn't have been an article on Rwanda at all - so the PR group is raising awareness of the area, and if people are REALLY interested in Rwanda then can then go out and search about Rwanda themselves - however, people only do this if they are REALLY interested - a lot of people will take the article written by the respected journalist in the respected newspaper to be fact. The reader will not know that the report they read was sponsored by a PR company paid by the Rwandan President. The problem here is freedom of information and conflicts of interest.
All research papers have to declare any conflicts of interest, this is standard. Sometimes carrying out research with a conflict of interest is unavoidable and is not necessarily frowned upon. The most important point is the transparency of the report. Why can't this be introduced for journalists? Why isn't it in practice already? I see no barrier as why this shouldn't become standard on informative news articles. It would also help with science journalism, where 'research' is often presented to the public (e.g. a report on walnuts preventing cancer- see earlier blog) seems innocuous enough, however the research actually has a number of flaws and the research only got into the newspaper through a press release which was a result of the research being sponsored by the Californian Walnut Board. The original research paper would state that the research was sponsored by the Californian Walnut Board. No problems there, people need sponsors for research and anyone interested in the information could read the paper (with all the facts) see the flaws and see that the research was sponsored, they can then make up their own mind about the validity of the research. If you simply read the news article about the research, none of that information is presented (neither is a link to the original research, which also should happen in any science journalism). In order for people to make a balanced judgement on an article or piece of information they need to have the full background, reasoning and sources for the article. This is impossible if information is withheld, like in many cases of science research and PR sponsored holiday guides
So PR companies, you are doing a good job - keep promoting what ever you are asked to do! Journalists - make sure your reports are clear, informative and entertaining but also make sure you declare if you have been sponsored to do the work, i.e. in the introduction state that you were asked to visit Rwanda by xxxx OR have box at the bottom of the article that declares any possible conflicts of interest. I can't see why that would be a problem and also, it would probably make journalists investigate their facts a little better - and therefore give the public better, more informative articles. It's a simple change in the way things are done, that could make a huge amount of difference - and I expect credible journalists would not have any problem with it - much like any respected researcher.