'Watchdog' versus 'spin doctor'/'informer' versus 'advocate': the inadequacy of oppositional portrayals of journalists and parliamentary media advisers

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In journalism, public relations and political communications scholarship journalism and parliamentary media advising have been defined in opposition to each other. This is most notably observed in the ubiquitous stereotypes of the journalist as democratic ‘watchdog’ and the parliamentary media adviser1 as Machiavellian ‘spin doctor’. Both of these stereotypes carry ethical assumptions about each of the two roles. On the one hand is the journalist whose professional identity is tied to its role in democracy serving the ideals of truth, fairness, scrutiny and informing in the public interest. On the other hand is the ‘spin doctor’ whose use of morally dubious tactics of lying, manipulation, control, persuasion and advocacy in the interest of a client are seen to be undermining democracy. Based on the reflections of twenty-one reporters who have worked as both journalists and parliamentary media advisers this paper argues that these oversimplified antithetical stereotypes do not adequately reflect the more complex reality of either role. This paper is part of broader doctoral research which draws on the traditions of phenomenology to examine the under-explored phenomenon of journalists who make the transition from reporter to parliamentary media adviser and back again. Using grounded theory strategies this qualitative research project examines a range of issues related to the career transition including power relations between the two roles and conceptions of ethical conflict. Instead of the black and white oppositional portrayal of the two roles the study found the interviewees perceived many similarities between journalism and parliamentary media advising, including shared skills and goals. Based on their individual lived experience of the two roles some of the study participants perceived the goals of ‘informing’ and ‘advocacy’ to be shared by both journalism and media advising and not confined to either role. In response to these findings. this paper argues it is time to address the inadequacy of such oversimplified oppositional stereotypes and adopt a more nuanced understanding of the two roles based on the varied perceptions of individual practitioner experience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2013 JERAA Annual Conference: Redrawing the Boundaries: Journalism Research, Education and Professional Culture in Times of Change
EditorsDr Folker Hanusch, Peter English
Place of PublicationAustralia
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventJEAA 2013 Annual Conference of the Journalism Education Association of Australia: Redrawing the boundaries: journalism research, education and professional culture in times of change - Mooloolaba, Mooloolaba, Australia
Duration: 2 Dec 20134 Dec 2013


ConferenceJEAA 2013 Annual Conference of the Journalism Education Association of Australia
Abbreviated titleJEAA 2013


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