Leonard Downie Jr., who was executive editor of The Washington Post for seventeen years, does not believe that reporters working for reputable organizations are going to let PR people dictate their stories, no matter how busy they get.

“Observing our own newsroom” at the Post, “I don’t see a difference in the way people are working,” said Downie, who is now a professor at Arizona State University and vice president at large of the Post. “In addition to talking to PR people, both in government and in business, our reporters want to talk to principals all the time. I don’t see a change in that relationship.”

What Downie does see is a change in the relationship between PR and the public itself. The Internet makes it easy for public relations people to reach out directly to the audience and bypass the press, via websites and blogs, social media and videos on YouTube, and targeted e-mail.

“Let’s take a hypothetical situation in which there had been no reduction in the media; at the same time, there still would be growth in the ability of public relations people to directly reach the public,” Downie said. “They are filling a space that has been created digitally.”

Some quick examples: in the academic world, the website Futurity regularly offers polished stories from research universities across the country like “Gems Clear Drug Resistance Hurdle” (Northwestern University) and “Algae Spew Mucus to Alter Sea Ice” (University of Washington); on the business front, Toyota used satellite press conferences and video feeds on its website to respond to allegations about sudden acceleration in its cars last year, and published transcripts on its website of a long interview with reporters at the Los Angeles Times; and in the realm of political advocacy, Media Matters for America led a battle across the Internet for the past several months with the anti-abortion group Live Action over a videotaped sting that Live Action did on Planned Parenthood.

In a vacuum, none of this is bad. Schools need to publicize their research, corporations defend their products, and political groups stake their positions. But without the filter provided by journalists, it is hard to divide facts from slant.

It’s also getting tougher to know when a storyline originates with a self-interested party producing its own story. In 2005 and 2006, The New York Times and the advocacy group PR Watch did separate reports detailing how television news was airing video news releases prepared by corporate or government PR offices, working them into stories as part of their newscasts. PR Watch listed seventy-seven stations which aired the reports, some of them broadcast nearly verbatim.

Stacey Woelfel, the past-chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said when his group looked into the issue after it was raised by the reports, it was troubled by how widespread the use of the releases had become. “Some stations were running video news releases all the time, sometimes packages from corporate interests,” he said.

There is evidence that it has not stopped. James Rainey, the Los Angeles Times media columnist, recently won Penn State’s Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism for columns last year that showed how local television stations were running paid content in their news programs. “There’s a good chance that your small screen expert has taken cash to sell, sell, sell,” Rainey wrote in a September 15 column.

In 2008, The New York Times again returned to the issue of hidden public relations agendas with a series of stories in which Barstow showed how the Pentagon was using retired military officers to deliver the military’s message on the war in Iraq and its counterterrorism efforts. Barstow described how the officers were presented on the news programs as independent consultants offering unvarnished opinions.

After being stonewalled by the Pentagon for two years, the Times eventually sued to obtain records about the Defense Department’s use of retired military officers. Barstow found evidence that the officers’ appearances on television were not happenstance, but a carefully coordinated effort of what the Pentagon called “message force multipliers.”

Barstow was struck by the sophistication of the operation. “In a world saturated with spin, viewers tend to tune out official spokespeople and journalists,” he said. “Where they are influenced is when they see people who are perceived to be experts in the subject matter but independent of the government and the media.”

Front Groups Obscure Special Interests

Hiding the PR agenda is not a new tactic, but one that seems to be rising to new levels. One form it takes is front groups, supporting this cause or that, this candidate or that, this product or that, without revealing their ties to the cause, candidate, or product.

John Sullivan , a former reporter for The New York Times and The Providence Journal, is a freelance journalist. This story is being jointly published with ProPublica.