A few weeks ago, Gregg Bell spoke to my sports writing class. Bell is a former AP sportswriter and now holds the position of Director of Writing for the University of Washington Athletic Department.
Basically, UW's athletic department hired to Bell to be their own in-house journalist. He still writes game stories, feature stories and columns (ironically known as unleashed) like he did with the AP but now he only writes about what they tell him to write about.
For example, if a Washington football player is charged with possession of marijuana, Bell will not write about it. As the director of writing, Bell basically acts as a gate-keeper, only putting out information that the department wants out and that will paint the university in a positive light.
Positions like Bell's are becoming more and more common. While he said there were only two or three others like his at schools across the country, many professional teams have hired similar positions. This immediately raised the question of whether Bell was a journalist or a PR person.
In my opinion, he's both. The fact that he still writes game stories and features qualifies him as a journalist in my mind.
But I also think he is PR. He is not a bearer of truth like most journalists strive to be. Like advertisers or PR people, he will only reveal the best parts about his employer and will leave out any negative details.
In the readings, it discusses whether not telling the whole truth is a form of lying. I don't think Bell lies when he writes only what the athletic department wants him to, but I do think his work should be taken for what it is - mostly PR.
I think the same applies for advertisements and VNR's. Leaving out entire truths is okay until the goal is to deceive. At that point, I think it could be considered lying and therefore unethical.
Others raised the question of whether Bell was selling-out as a journalist. I don't think he is selling-out, but I do think he has shifted into more of a PR role.
Will these new writing positions hurt traditional journalism? From a univeristiy's standpoint, I think it makes perfect sense and I expect to see more of these positions in the future.
Despite the shift towards PR, I still think there are people who would much prefer to get their news from an actual news source rather than a team site because they know what appears on the site has a slant.