Monday, May 11, 2009

PR Meets Journalism

Ohio State issued a press release titled "Study Finds Link Between Facebook Use, Lower Grades in College" with this first sentence, actually entire first paragraph:
College students who use Facebook spend less time studying and have lower grade point averages than students who have not signed up for the social networking website, according to a pilot study at one university.

A bit later The Times had an article called "Facebook fans do worse in exams:
Research finds the website is damaging students’ academic performance" that opens:
FACEBOOK users may feel socially successful in cyberspace but they are more likely to perform poorly in exams, according to new research into the academic impact of the social networking website.

Then about three weeks later the Columbia Journalism Review printed a piece by Earle Holland (Ohio State's asst VP for research communications) that responded to The Times with "Sadly, the research showed no such thing." His whole point is "how badly most of the conventional news media would muck up the story in the process."

Holland didn't write the original press release but in the CJR he's come up with a remarkable bit of spin that's very nearly outright lying. Almost certainly the controversy prompted him to come up with this elaborate excuse that it really wasn't their fault, it was those no-good, poorly educated journalists. Sure he's right that the journalists shouldn't have made such blanket claims but their sin isn't lack of effort (well not entirely) but having taken the press release at face value. If the research showed no such thing for The Times claim then that's just as true for the press release because they're saying basically the same thing. Sure they aren't saying exactly the same thing but this shouldn't have to be the work of New Critics. (And I'm betting far more journalists understand the difference between causation and correlation than Holland thinks - which after all aren't terms as "technical" as he claims.) The points he claims the journalists should really have paid attention to are buried and diffused down in the release and as for the PR people (yeah yeah "research communications") being "very careful to narrowly report the findings" well obviously not careful enough. (This is avoiding the entire question of the value of the original research which even in the press release seems pretty dubious.)

The best you can say is that the original press release was badly written but it seems more likely that it's just an example of deception, however unintentional, to get attention. That some journalists get it wrong is not news - you don't even have to think "history's first draft" to know that we expect journalism to have errors; that's part of its nature. Similarly we don't expect PR folk to be forthright and sober and completely accurate; that's not in their nature either. Far from being a collapse of journalist process this incident is more a culture clash.