Views from across Iowa
Des Moines Register, Sept. 20
Blurring the lines between news and public relations
It's easy to see why the city of Davenport elected to bypass the local news media to spread the word about some of its operations.
These days, many local news outlets have too few resources to effectively cover city hall. In many communities, the county boards, school boards and city councils haven't had a reporter covering their meetings in months or even years. And when reporters do cover these proceedings, they are, for good reason, inclined to focus on issues of controversy rather than the "positive" developments public officials want publicized.
But rather than create a website to issue press releases or connect directly to the public, the city of Davenport went a step further, creating a site called Davenport Today and packaging the information as if it was independently produced journalism rather than information crafted and disseminated by the same public entity that was being "covered."
Logistically, that was a small mistake, but it had mountainous ramifications. From the outset, Davenport Today was criticized for being nothing more than a taxpayer-funded propaganda machine — which it was. That meant all of the information it shared with the public, no matter how solid, was tainted in the eyes of some readers. Even the articles that appeared to present an unvarnished look at city operations were viewed as self-serving since they emanated from City Hall itself.
Fortunately, the city has taken down the site and Davenport Today is no more. But the city's desire to provide a direct conduit of information between City Hall and the people of Davenport remains a worthwhile goal. Cities, counties and school boards need to do more to reach out and provide information not just to the media, but also to the citizens they serve. Davenport's only mistake was in attempting to pass that information off as news — although, to be fair, the news media itself has often blurred the line between propaganda and news.
The Des Moines Register, for example, has at times published what appear to be news articles about the Des Moines Public Schools, written not by a Register journalist but by a "staff writer" for the school system's award-winning public relations team.
Unfortunately, that sort of thing is becoming more and more common, and it's getting to the point where the average person may find it impossible to differentiate between independent journalism and government self-promotion produced at the taxpayer's expense.
That has profound implications not just for the future viability of the news business, but for the nation as a whole, which needs a vigilant, independent press to oversee government operations and keep the public fully informed.
One of Davenport Today's photographers recently told the Associated Press' Ryan Foley that the website's shutdown is a loss to the city.
"Local media like to report on planes that crash," David Cross told the AP, using an old analogy about the way the press defines the news. "We were reporting on the planes that land."
There's no harm in government officials sharing factual information they feel the media has ignored. But government and the media must be mindful of the fundamental difference between journalism and state-sponsored public relations.
If they lose sight of that difference, the public will, too.