The second episode of Spin Cycles (A six-part series featured on Canada's national radio network and developed and hosted by Ira Basen) continues a rather soporific and cliched look at public relations and the media by taking on the nuisance of media training and the naughtiness of broadcast journalism using VNRs without making known that the material has been provided by a company or organization.
(Actually the second half is the more interesting with its look at the tricks for "earning" media used by marketers and the duplicity of broadcast journalism which doubts the ethics of public relations while itself skulking around the edges of fact by not disclosing sources or the supplier of broadcast material.)
But it is the part on media training that most irritates, not least because the clips Basen uses to make his point about training for "spin", with the exception of an interview with Three Mile Island's Don Currie dating from 1988, are all of politicians like Donald Rumsfeld ("There are the things we know and the things we know we know' . . or something like that), Belinda Stronach and Paul Martin. And as we all know politicians have a propensity to skate around the truth, to obfuscate and, yes it has to be said, rewrite the past. Was it so difficult to find a CEO to quote? Perhaps CEOs are just better schooled, or better able to recognize that honesty and transparency in public comment works.
What bothers journalists about media training according to Basen is that people are trained not to answer questions but to respond to them, and in the responding bridge to an idea or fact which-- at least to the reporter-- is not the intent of the question. The sanctity of the reporter's question, and his or her right to ask it, are of course in the reporter's mind never in doubt. Not answering a question, again in the reporter's mind, makes a response therefore indistinguishable from evasion.
But let's look at it another way. Reporters write stories. Stories are pieces of fiction (most often) that narrate a chain of events, usually drawing out the drama or conflict in them. The success of a story is not in getting it right but in making it interesting and attracting an audience or readers. That suggests that a journalist's questions are not without intent; They are meant to compel conflict, force confession even though guilt may not have been proven, and contrast points of view, preferably if one side is willing -- or caught -- expressing it salaciously, combatively or in absolutes (the approach favored by advocacy groups).
In this context, then, what exactly is wrong with someone preparing to tell his or her side of the story? What is wrong with being taught the behaviours used by reporters to coerce someone into saying something damaging, even though the facts might speak otherwise if properly reported? If we accept that most journalism today is not about representing the public interest but about publishing or broadcasting a compelling even persuasive (yes, reporters have points of view) story, then tutoring someone in how to make known his or her side of a story is nothing more than common sense, even collaboration, but certainly not spin.