Note: This online version will remain the same as the original printed edition.
A well respected, but oftentimes critical and misunderstood, former Detroit business and automotive journalist once told me he has “neither friend nor foe.” It is about objectivity, the separation of church and state, of journalism and advertising, of objectivity vs. selling himself out.
He was clearly not a PR person’s dream, and that is why I enjoyed working with him. I have always respected that journalist’s view, ethics and credibility.
As a former reporter and editor at an advertising driven publication, Monday Morning Newspapers (Detroit Auto Scene, etc.), I experienced firsthand the sensitivities around writing a story with a negative slant. But I had a duty to my readers.
Now I’m on the “other side,” as a seasoned, accredited public relations practitioner. I am a member of the Public Relations Society of America and immediate past president of the PRSA Detroit Chapter. I respect and uphold our organization’s Code of Ethics.
While I enjoy landing the single-sourced reporter-written profile on my clients (truly considered #winning), I respect and actually celebrate a well-balanced, objective story. It was difficult at the time (about 10 years ago) as I was working with that journalist on what was really a “non-story” as he attempted to draw comparisons between competitors – one a public company and the other a private company.
It was not my job to “spin” (I despise that term) the story and have a hand in reviewing it in advance or attempting to kill it. My PR role was to provide the facts, and allow the reporter to review them and write an objective, balanced and fair story. The journalist respected that. The story may have been written, but it never was printed.
So, when I heard about The Detroit News auto critic (note: “critic”) Scott Burgess resigning March 16 after edits were made to his review of the Chrysler 200 – yes, the car featured in the Imported from Detroit Super Bowl Ad with Eminem) – I was intrigued that edits were made (to the online edition) after the story ran in the print edition. I was really disgusted about why they were made and now question the publication’s credibility.
Burgess was appalled enough to quit. According to Jalopnik in its “How The Detroit News Sold Its Soul” story, “his editors bowed to a request by an advertiser to water down his negative review.”
Edits happen. It’s part of the information gathering, writing and review process. But after the story is published? It’s acceptable to fix inaccuracies, but because of a complaint from an advertiser?
What is even more troublesome is the newspaper’s inconsistent response. Jalopnik received a statement from Sue Carney, business editor of The Detroit News, which included, “We made several changes to the online version of Scott’s review because we were uncomfortable with some of the language in the original. It should have been addressed during the editing process but wasn’t. ... the changes did not fundamentally change the thrust of Scott’s piece … a car dealer raised a complaint and we took a look at the review, as we would do whenever a reader raises a flag. The changes were made to address the journalism of the piece, not the angst of a car dealer.”
And from The Detroit News Publisher Jonathan Wolman to Jalopnik, “Our intent was to make an editing improvement and we obviously handled it poorly. We should have let the online version of his review stand as written, as we did the print version.”
So what’s the real story?
Whether you agree with the reporter’s assessment of the new vehicle, the real issue here is about journalism – the initial writing, the entire editing process, the balance, objectivity and ethics. Neither friend nor foe. In the words of a colleague of mine regarding this, “Please, journalism, go back to your roots!”
What do you think?
UPDATE: Scott Burgess rejoined as auto critic of The Detroit News, which (according to the publication) “acknowledged that it was wrong to ask him to soften several phrases in a recent review after an advertiser complained.” The publication’s News Editor and Publisher Jon Wolman described the situation that led to Burgess resigning as an “unfortunate lapse.”
—Rich Donley is a vice president at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley