THE BLOG
10/22/2014 01:45 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

The New News: How Subjectivity and Contributed Content Are Changing the Media

By Sandra Fathi, President of Affect

It wasn't so long ago that journalism was viewed as an ethical, moral, objective profession that recorded history. Occasionally, journalists make headlines with investigative reporting or exposing the masses to the world's greatest sins or personal stories that moved us. A dictionary definition of journalism includes "writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation." However, current journalism is dominated by the exact opposite of objectivity - subjectivity.

We see it in every form of media - on television, on radio, in print and online. Today, it is the opinionated journalist that dominates the media landscape (think Bill O'Reilly or Bill Maher). This movement in many ways helped give life and legitimacy to the citizen journalist and now, to the brand journalist. It doesn't take more than a quick look at most major media outlets to see contributed content is given equal weight on the front page and at the anchor desk. The more controversial and biased a TV show guest is, the higher the ratings seem to climb. And if an online story incites a flurry of comments, good or bad, in the end, it means more eyeballs and more advertising dollars to keep the publication in the black.

This is not a criticism of modern media and in fact, I believe this trend has made the public's experience richer and more diverse. It has allowed more voices to reach larger audiences and provide dissenting opinions, personal perspectives and unique viewpoints. I enjoy reading first-person accounts by billionaires on how they built their empires, or listening to an impassioned individual on the ground in a third-world country talk about a global health crisis. However, sometimes the topics I am interested in are not so profound or universal. As someone in public relations serving technology clients, it could be a specific issue in network security, enterprise software or wearable technology that garners my interest. In such cases, it may be the CEO of a company developing these technologies that is the foremost authority on the topic. I want to hear directly from him or her - and so do many readers.

This has opened up the doors for brands to bypass the journalist filter and to communicate their message directly to the publication's readers by authoring the content themselves. This content is not regulated solely to an opinions section but is often presented side-by-side with all of the content written by professional reporters. This has been a game-changer for public relations professionals as well. Although we still have to work hard to convince professional journalists that our clients are worthy of inclusion in their next story, we often have the option of writing the story ourselves. For one of my clients, we've secured eight monthly news columns in a variety of publications from general business to niche industry blogs. This allows the organization to disseminate opinion, educate the public and break news without a journalist's intervention (although it still needs to get past the news editor).

In a recent conversation with Richard Gallant, Senior Editor, Opinion, for CNN, he discussed the rise of the opinion as the center of CNN's digital universe. Although the Opinions section has been on the main navigation bar of CNN.com since 2009, it has increasingly moved up on the home page to its premier spot right under the latest headlines. According to Galant, CNN will actually solicit contributed content from experts, celebrities, politicians or other renowned sources. That only accounts for approximately 25% of the Opinions section. The remaining 75% comes from unsolicited authors that have a unique vantage point on a breaking news topic, personal experience or compelling cause to evangelize.

The broad acceptance, and encouragement, of subjectivity and opinion has enabled more citizens, corporate executives and brands to 'grab the mike' and share their perspectives. At the same time, it has also required that the public be more skeptical and adept at reading between the lines and deciphering between the 'truth', versions of the truth and complete misrepresentation. If organizations are truthful, transparent and open to honest exchange, this can be a very powerful vehicle for communicating messages and engendering positive public opinion. At the same time, it gives the public access to valuable opinions and perspectives that help fill in the full news canvas. Nothing can replace the need for continued investment in traditional objective, independent news sources, but subjective and contributed content can be complementary elements that help educate and provide insights to the public.

This article is a part of a series exploring communications and media trends in honor of the inaugural Communications Week. Follow @CommsWeekNY on Twitter for more information.

Post by Sandra Fathi, President of Affect, a public relations and social media firm specializing in technology and healthcare. She can be reached at sfathi@affect.com or on Twitter @sandrafathi.