Reporter.jpgMedia, government and public relations
If you read the newspaper, listen to the radio, watch TV news, or scroll through news articles online, it is probably not surprising to find stories about government and politicians. What most of us don’t realize, however, is the complex and evolving history of relationships between the media, politicians and public relations professionals who work in government or political communication.

It might be surprising to hear that modern journalism has a rather short history, dating back to the mid-18th Century.1 Newspapers trace their origins small documents published by printers, primarily to advertise their printing business.2 As far as political content, very little could be found in early publications, even the Pennsylvania Gazette, published from 1728-1765 by Benjamin Franklin.3

As the political world heated up in Europe and North America, it became increasingly difficult for newspapers to avoid politics, as everyone felt pressure to take sides.4
In Canada, the first newspaper, the Halifax Gazette, began publishing in 1752 and it apparently made for a pretty boring read in its early days.5 It was not until the early 1800s that a free press was established in Canada, and more political content became available to readers.6

By the early 20th Century, newspapers had moved away from partisanship, journalists were becoming professionalized and by 1922-23, journalists were adopting codes of ethics that demanded unbiased reporting. 7

It was at about the same time that the profession of public relations began to take shape in America with the use of public relations through the Creel Committee during World War I, and with Edward Bernays’ publication Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923 and Propaganda in 1928.8
Each subsequent American federal administration relied more and more heavily on public relations, largely to keep an increasingly free and competitive press under control.9
President Roosevelt hosting a radio broadcast.

In the ensuing years, the two professions, and governments at all levels, have come to share an inter-twined, complicated and intricate relationship which includes ethical codes and standards for each group.10

With the transition from weekly media to daily, and now hourly demands for news content, the pressure on journalists to gather information can be enormous, and for this content, reporters rely on sources11, and the dominant source is government, who feed media’s hunger with news conferences, releases, speeches, hearings and interviews.12

There is nothing particularly worrisome about the relationship between the media and government communicators. After all, government needs to get information out to its people, and much of this information is in the public interest.

However, the fine ethical line between politicians, public relations practitioners and the media can be crossed, resulting in scandal, and, perhaps worse, cynicism and disengagement of the public.13

The line is sometimes crossed in favour of suppressing information from the media and, in turn, the public. For example, in October, 2010, a political aide for Conservative cabinet minister Christian Paradis resigned over allegations that he interfered with access to information requests that came to the Minister’s office.14

Karl Rove
Sometimes political staff releases too much information. In the United States, George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove was discovered to be the source of White House leaks that revealed Valerie Plame, the wife of a Bush critic was a secret CIA operative.15 At first, Rove denied being the leak, however, after nearly two years of hearings and investigations, and mounting evidence that he did, in fact, disclose the information, putting Plame at risk.16 While Rove’s colleague Scooter Libbey, was indicted on counts of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury,17 Rove escaped indictment, but was fired.18

Senator Mike Duffy

In other cases, it’s not the use of political staff or communicators as sources, it’s the perception that the professional distance has been violated. When veteran journalist and political commentator Mike Duffy was appointed to the Canadian Senate as a Conservative member, it sparked a debate among media pundits and the public about the ethics involved.19 Some argued that he cast a shadow of suspicion on his fellow journalists, while others defended the appointment, saying journalists should not be excluded from the senate.20

Kaur, K. & Shaari, H. (2006). Perceptions on the relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists. Kajian Malaysia, 24(1,2).

Neijens, P. and Smit, E. , 2003-05-27 "The Problematic Relationship between Journalists and Public Relations Practitioners in Government and Business" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from
  1. Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 71; Starr, P. (2004). The creation of the media. New York: Perseus Books Group, p. 39.
  2. Schudson, pp. 71-72.
  3. Schudson, p. 72.
  4. Schudson, p. 74.
  5. Nesbitt-Larkin, P. (2007). Politics, society and media. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, p. 34.
  6. Nesbitt-Larkin, p. 35.
  7. Schudson, p. 82.
  8. Bates, D. (2006). “Mini-me” history: Public relations from the dawn of civilization. Institute of Public Relations, p. 10. Retrieved from
  9. Bates, p. 12.; Lee, M. (2009). Government public relations during Herbert Hoover’s presidency. Public Relations Review, 36, 56-58.
  10. Kaur, K. & Shaari, H. (2006). Perceptions on the relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists. Kajian Malaysia, 24(1,2), pp. 9-10.
  11. Schudson, p. 135.
  12. Schudson, p. 134.
  13. Norris, P. (2000). A virtuous circle: Political communications in postindustrial societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, pp. 32-33.
  14. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (October 1, 2010). Paradis aide resigns over info meddling. Retrieved from
  15. Sourcewatch (n.d.). Karl Rove: Outing Valerie Plame. Retrieved from
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sourcewatch. (n.d.). Treasongate: Beyond Karl Rove. Retrieved from
  18. Keil, R. (2006, June 13). Rove won’t be charged in CIA leak probe, lawyer says. Bloomberg News. Retrieved from
  19. Oliveira, M. (2008, December 22). Folksy political pundit Mike Duffy will don Tory mantle in the Senate chamber. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from
  20. Oliveira, 2008.