The publicist’s pivotal role in shaping the ‘first rough drafts of history’

by | Aug 3, 2021 | Public Relations

One of my favorite aphorisms about journalism is that it’s the first rough draft of history. True enough.

Sometimes, though, it proves to be the only history, especially for local news of lesser import.

And as for those stories that have follow-ups over time, the term “rough draft” may suggest that debut stories have a rather flimsy quality to them. However, in my experience, those initial stories tend to have a gigantic influence on the arc of most anything that follows that first draft.

Because initial reporting can wield considerable influence on all future drafts, there is a heavy responsibility that falls on journalists to get it as close to “right” the first time as humanly possible. Relatedly, what is the publicist’s role in helping the journalist achieve that lofty aim? How can we help them hit the bull’s-eye for fairness, accuracy and thoroughness?

Journalism’s short- & long-term impacts

Stories have a big impact in the short term, such as when other media outlets that, ahem, take a cue from other outlets’ coverage. (That’s a diplomatic phrasing; a less kind assessment: lazy cut-and-paste journalism that borders on, or outright lapses into, plagiarism is a perpetual concern.)

The first story out of the gate also has a profound effect on a narrative’s long-term arc. The details in that article establish a narrative that can be hard to budge later.

Because of this impact, it’s crucial that journalists are diligent in thoughtful, balanced reporting that strives to capture as many dimensions of a story as possible in that “first draft.” There are usually at least two sides to a story—and, often, many more.

Having been a journalist working on thousands of these drafts, I have no illusion that I routinely captured the definitive story about an incident, an individual, or any combination of incidents and individuals involved in those incidents. Whether it was reporting on a public figure, a city council’s decision on a controversial issue, a business feature story, or a feature on a Powerball winner, I did my best. But it was always within constraints whose mere existence, let alone nuances, are beyond the ken of many news consumers.

Generally, those limitations show up in three ways: time, awareness, and context.

1. Limited time

Deadlines are relentless, and the scope of reporters’ beats can feel boundless. Devoting attention to one story means less focus on a variety of other stories.

There’s never enough time to do a story complete justice—hence, the saying that journalism is the first rough draft of history. A “first draft” status implies that subsequent drafts will improve upon the holes, blind spots, biases and shortcomings that are part of the initial piece.

Instead, unless a reporter brings more effort to the process, those failings are only magnified along the way.

2. Limited awareness

There’s only so much anyone knows.

The good reporters who specialize on a focused topic are the first to acknowledge that the more they learn, the more they realize how many holes they have in their awareness. And general assignment reporters? Spread so thin, they are generally at the mercy of sources who possess their own slanted agenda.

During my career as a newspaper reporter, here was the pattern: after a year or two of covering a beat, I would be just getting comfortable covering the courts, or city hall, or whatever it was—and then…bam! My editor would shift me to something else. The cycle would begin anew, with me scrambling to heighten my awareness of this relatively foreign terrain.

3. Limited context

To a good degree, this limitation of context is an outgrowth of the limitations of time and awareness. The reporter has neither the immediate time (that darned deadline!) nor the longer span of time (to increase awareness in its myriad forms) to be able to couch a story in adequate context.

The effective publicist recognizes these limitations and provides support to journalists accordingly. In a timely fashion, the PR practitioner proactively helps to fill in those gaps with facts that deepen understanding and broaden context. This isn’t “spinning,” but advocating for a particular side of the story to have its proper place at the table.

A recent scenario: Fighting for context

Such a scenario played out in late May, with a lengthy Chicago Tribune story that was extremely critical of an Inside Edge PR client. A recurring complaint that was a dominant theme in the story that appeared initially online lacked sufficient context. Aware that the story would soon go to print, I challenged the newspaper to include the results of an independent study that cast significant doubt on the legitimacy of those complaints.

To its credit, the Tribune wisely made the insertion—a measure of fairness that offered sorely needed context to what remained, frankly, a story slanted heavily against my client.

Just the same, when the next reporter writes about the issue—and the one after that, and so forth—this important study now has a better chance of being included. That is because the study’s key conclusion is now part of this latest “working draft.”

Matt Baron
For more than 20 years, Matt Baron, founder of Chicago-based Inside Edge: Public Relations & Media Services, was a staff and freelance reporter for small-town weeklies, big-city dailies and national magazines. His past Daily ‘Dog contributions include “Crisis PR Isn’t Black and White” (May 2008) to “Sticking Up for the Client, Sticking Up for the Story.” (October 2013).