“Decisions concerning the content of media must be made in accordance with journalistic principles. The power to make such decisions must not under any circumstances be surrendered to any party outside the editorial office.” A skilled lobbyist forces journalists to walk a tightrope with this directive included in the Guidelines for Journalists.
“Hello! I would like to have word with you about a matter that I think you will find interesting. Would you happen to have time later this week so I can tell you more, maybe over lunch?”
A lobbyist might start the publicity game something like this when contacting a journalist.
Lobbyists seek to influence the media and utilise it as a tool for political decision making. There is nothing new in this as such, as people have always tried to influence journalists. However, in this millennium these activities have become more purposeful and systematic.
Today, editorial offices stand on less firm ground in terms of outside influence than they did in the last millennium. The number of specialised reporters has decreased, while the number of general reporters has grown.
“Younger reporters especially come from varied backgrounds. Many lack experience, insight and knowledge of the subject areas important for reporting on politics”, Markus Mykkänen says.
“The responsibility of the editor-in-chief has also become less binding and has been distributed to mid-level chiefs. There is no systematic investigative approach or clear responsibility in the editorial work, which opens the door to outside influence and pressure”, Heikki Kuutti says.
The ice becomes increasingly thin when the hectic nature of the modern media field is added to the equation. At editorial offices, stories fly in and out at a fast pace, often with very light editorial work. An outsider can easily get to throw their own spices into the mix in the midst of all this.
“A subtle but effective way of lobbying is to send a readymade, well-written story to the editorial offices. In the middle of busy editorial work, the temptation to accept it is big. The problem here is that you can’t see what the story is based on and from whom it originates. Even at the publication stage, it may be that nobody takes the time to stop and check it”, Mykkänen says.
Omitting the source is something many lobbyists specifically seek. They want to maintain the impression that everything is published only after careful consideration by the editorial offices.
“Even in these situations, the editorial offices still decide which stories to publish, of course. But the point of view, content and, consequently, the agenda of the published story may be defined by an outsider. In such a case, the question can be legitimately asked whether the power to make decisions has been surrendered by the editorial office and the ethics of journalism thus breached”, Kuutti says.
Transparency increases credibility
Various organisations, industry, the social and health sector and advertising and communications agencies are especially eager lobbyists. They are also happy to recruit journalists to their ranks, as a journalist who knows the media world is worth their weight in gold in lobbying work.
How do lobbyists seek to influence journalists? The main form of influence is traditional press releases and emails – or readymade stories – which are sent to editorial offices all the time. Another important method is personal persuasion. A meeting can be proposed to the journalist, and a story about a certain theme. Various publicity stunts, such as demonstrations, can also be effective.
An example of a publicity stunt can also be seen in the case where Matti Putkonen, an official of the Finns Party, said at a press conference that the infrasonic waves of windmills blow up bats. This led to an invitation to the A-studio TV show. Putkonen, indeed, compared the claim to a fishing lure, which the media took.
Journalists can also be influenced indirectly without their knowledge. Lobbyists monitor journalists and observe which themes each of them writes about. When they find a writer dealing with their own subject, they go for him or her. Creating personal networks for future needs also falls within the same category.
The lobbyists’ goal is to raise themes through the media that guide decision making in the desired direction.
“For instance, in the Guggenheim case, communications agencies were commissioned to promote the matter. Through them, discussion could be introduced to the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper about the importance of constructing the Guggenheim museum in Finland. The discussion was not genuine and neutral – its starting point was that it was necessary to snare Guggenheim”, Mykkänen says.
Journalists need to be able to continuously evaluate whether it is important for the public to know about the political activities that influencers seek to raise, or whether it in fact constitutes manipulation of publicity.
“We do not consider lobbying to be an inherently negative issue. However, the public must have the chance to see the kind of decisions that have been made at the editorial office and which material has been used, and to form their own opinion on the work of the media based on this. Journalism can increase its credibility through transparency”, Mykkänen emphasises.
“The point is ultimately that the editorial office must not lie by suggesting it is doing something other than what it is actually doing”, Kuutti sums it up.
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