How PR stole the show
If a New Orleans law firm is to be believed, Alaska is the nation’s deadliest state for “freeway driving.”
The 10-person firm of Scott Vicknair Law did a “study” that came to this conclusion, turned the study over to journoresearch.org, and the latter shot it into the internet “tubes” that feed the journalists of these times.
Alaskans, or at least those who’ve driven much Outside, will immediately recognize this report on freeways as so much hogwash given Alaska’s shortage of freeways or any roads like those generally recognized by the majority of Americans as “freeway” or what is normally defined as such.
“Freeway,” according to Dicitionary.com, is “an express highway with no intersections. The U.S. Department of Transportation officially defines a freeway as “a divided highway with full control of access and two or more lanes for the exclusive use of traffic in each direction.”
There is less than 100 miles of such roadway outside the confines of the Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau metropolitan areas. Inherently dangerous two-lane roads are the state’s dominant highway links and most of Alaska’s highway fatalities happen on these roads.
Freeways were created long ago to reduce the dangers, and they have done so.
“The features that make Interstate (freeways) safer than other roads include a separation from other roads and rail lines, a minimum of four lanes, gentler curves, paved shoulders, median barriers, and rumble strips to warn drivers when they are leaving the roadway,” the Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, reported to Congress on the 65th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System in 2021.
“Travel on the nation’s Interstate highways is nearly two and a half times as safe as travel on all other roadways. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles of travel on the Interstate system in 2019 was 0.55, compared to 1.30 on non-Interstate routes.”
Alaska wasn’t mentioned in that report, though it is part of the Interstate Highway System. But more on that later because this story isn’t so much about highway safety as about what the study from Scott Viknair reveals about journalism today.
Journalists now see swarms of Viknair-like emails pitching stories every day because the public relations (PR) world has recognized how easily journalists can be played.
A company identifying itself as the “Journalists’ Research Department” at Journoresearch.org didn’t send the Vicknair “study” into the journo-feeding tubes for no reason. Journalists Research shot it off figuring some journo would bite on the “danger” angle.
The pitch came with a footnote, too: “If using this story, please credit and link to https://www.scottvicknair.com/”.
The hope with these pitches is that some, or possibly many, journalists will bite, do as they had been asked and direct some internet traffic to the company’s client, in this case the Scott Vicknair Law Firm.
Any halfway competent reporter who checked out that website would figure out pretty quickly how sketchy the information provided by Journalists Research given that its media statement claimed “personal injury lawyer Scott Vicknair commented on the findings, saying:
“The findings highlight varying degrees of risk…” and yadda, yadda, yadda.
Only there is no “Scott Vicknair.” If you actually go to the Scott/Vicknair website you find out it is for a law firm headed by partners Brad Scott and David P. Vicknair.
One can only guess they turned to Journalists Research for cheap public relations help and got exactly what they paid for. Thankfully, the reach of their “study” so far seems very limited.
Maybe the majority of journalists are actually smarter than the average American believes, that bar now being very low; or could care less how about many people die on “freeways” in far-away Alaska, an equally good possibility; or hesitated because the information came from a source other than a government spokesperson.
But the fact that Journalists Research thought any journalist would actually run with this story is illustrative of what a trainwreck journalism has become with journalists more and more dependent on the stream of PR-produced “content’ – good, bad, indifferent and regularly misleading – flowing through the aforementioned tubes.
The journalism business did not get to this point by accident.
It evolved away from a world where journalism and PR were once separate and widely divided. There was a time when journalists regularly called those in the public relations business “flacks,” now considered a derogatory term in most newsrooms, and treated whatever the flacks said with healthy skepticism and sometimes outright disdain.
Everyone understood the job of the flacks was, and still is, to promote the interests of those who are paying them. The best of the breed never lied to reporters – recognizing the problems that might cause on down the line if they were caught having lied – but you could be assured they never told the full truth either.
My personal experience with this phenomenon came while employed for a short time as a flack, an assistant press secretary for the late Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel in 1976 to be specific, when the client (ie. Gravel) was accused of trading a vote on the reconstruction of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station for a roll in the sheets with a woman named “Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Ray,” who had become involved in a sex scandal that took down U.S. Rep. Wayne Hays.
At the time, Gravel denied even knowing Ray. But his staff discovered that Gravel, a man who hardly ever thanked anyone for anything, had written a thank you note to Hays after the night in question saying he’d enjoyed a wonderful dinner and that “dessert” – underlined three times – was especially good.
Needless to say, when Gravel’s then press secretary, who could be something of an airhead at times, was preparing to release a copy of this note to the media, somehow thinking that it would make Gravel look better, the senator’s chief of staff about had a heart attack. The note never saw the law light of day because the rules of PR say there’s no requirement any one tell all.
Gravel himself did eventually tell all. In an autobiography published in 2011, he described how federal investigators had been told that Ray was “ordered…to have sex with me on a houseboat. She said the reason was to secure a vote from me for…a new visitor’s center next to Washington’s Union Station.
“I was in Europe and got a call from a reporter asking me about it. I lied. I denied ever meeting Elizabeth Ray. What wasn’t true was that I voted for (the) project because of the affair.”
There were reporters in 1976 suspicious that Gravel was lying about not knowing Ray, but they never found the evidence and thus the issue eventually faded away. But not the suspicions of reporters because there was a time when reporters were always suspicious of government officials, politicians and their mouthpieces.
Exactly when, where and how this changed is unclear, but it appears linked in time to the steady growth in spokeswomen and spokesmen for government agencies. From the 1970s on, they began a steady takeover of the job once handled by officials within or working employees of government agencies.
Eventually, it became a standard policy almost everywhere to hire a “public information officer” or some such and funnel all information through him or her or a whole staff of them so as to maintain control of the agency narrative.
This takeover by the talking heads was compounded by a lot of aging reporters – wanting less stressful work usually for money – taking on these PR jobs.
When I started in the journalism business in Alaska in the late 1970s and for years after, there was considerable concern among reporters about taking such jobs for fear that they might be considered so tainted, for lack of a better word, that they’d never make it back to the “news side” if it turned out they didn’t like PR.
No one worries about this at all these days given the two “sides” are now regularly viewed as “partners,” and because there are a lot more jobs in PR than in journalism and the pay is much better.
There is no longer any real incentive for anyone to worry about going back to journalism if they decide to leave for the dark side.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports 297,100 flacks were at work in the country last year, earning an average salary of $67,440 per year. The BLS is projecting a 6 percent growth in these jobs through 2032, which it classifies as greater than average.
So it would appear there are about five times as many people making up the news as there are people trying to sort out what really is news, and the former are much better paid. The latter is important.
Simple economics is the reason many, if not most, of the smart young people who get their start in journalism these days fairly quickly leave for PR, and the PR artists have masterfully learned how to rationalize this as a good thing.
As Andrea Trapani, who works for the PR agency Identity in Detroit, has observed, PR operatives who “make an insanely busy, deadline-focused reporter’s life more difficult, the question is – maybe they are behaving like a flack? You know the drill, standing in the way of the necessary source, not responding to interview requests, delivering non-useful information, not understanding news. The list (unfortunately) goes on.
“However, if a PR person is clear, responsive, valuable, possesses a keen sense of news judgment and makes a reporter’s story richer (and hopefully, their lives easier), my guess is flack won’t be in their vocabulary.”
The most important word in Trapani’s entire observation is “easier.” PR has largely taken over journalism by making things easier for the dwindling journalism workforce.
In many cases today, PR operatives – and most especially government PR operatives – write the first rough draft of the news and journalists largely just rewrite it – if that.
In the 49th state, Alaska Native News has taken all of this to the next level by regularly cutting out the middleman and printing media releases from state officials as if they were news stories.
Of the seven stories on its front page today, two are bylined as written by Patty Sullivan, the spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, one is bylined “BLM Alaska Communications (BLM being the U.S. Bureau of Land Management); one bylined “Office of Sen. (Dan) Sullivan; one is bylined Noah Hansen of AKLEG (that being the Alaska Legislature); and one is bylined Sam Erickson, Office of Rep. (Mary) Peltola.
The seventh story is bylined “Alaska Native News,” but is no more than a minimally altered version of a statement from the Anchorage Police Department.
This dependency of the media of today on the steady flow of handouts from government agencies and others has helped the PR business thrive and encouraged all sorts of entities like Journalists Research to get into the game.
Who or what?
Who or what Journalists Research is cannot be easily ascertained. It’s possible the business is no more than the PR version of those “bloggers in their parent’s basement” as Sarah Palin, who rose from the role of governor of Alaska to become a national polebrity, once observed of stories written by her critics.
Journalists Research claims to “have a vibrant newsroom of over 35 in-house members, that find stories in data, trends, in the hidden corners of the internet. This is how it works:
- “Our clients commission us to conduct research in their industry
- “We conduct the research, and send our findings and insights to relevant journalists
- “Journalists use our insights as a base and as an added value for their stories, and mention our client in their publication”
The business links back to a company in the United Kingdom, Search Intelligence LTD., which describes itself on LinkedIn as “one of the fastest-growing digital PR agencies in the world, serving established businesses with the best high-tier, press backlinks in the world. Our team of dozens of PR experts, data analysts, researchers, developers, and SEO specialists, form a plug-in organism that acts as a heavy-artillery department for your organic performance. We build backlinks on The Guardian, Bloomberg, ITV News, Yahoo News, MSN, TechRadar, and hundreds of other high-tier publications, that will give you an unfair advantage, whilst your competitors are using old-school, lower-tier link building methods.”
Whether those publishers are aware of what Search Intelligence is doing for them is unclear, but it is worth noting that the Journo Research subsidiary claims its findings are “consistently being featured in the world’s biggest and most reputable publications, including BBC, The Guardian, Telegraph, Forbes, New York Times, and many more.” Unfortunately, the link that is supposed to display these stories goes to a blank page.
A separate link to the company’s “vibrant newsroom of over 35 in-house members” – a newsroom which is reported to have an energy comparable to “that seen in The Wolf of Wall Street movie” – works. But all it provides is full-length photos of 27 smiling thirty-somethings with first names only and no bios.
There is Ellie and Emily, Molly and Miles, Fery and Fran, Robbie and Rachel, Ed and Emma, a couple of weirdos named Ant and Bryony and more. Whether any of these “researchers” exist or are just labels stuck on random photos is impossible to tell.
As for the company’s deadliest freeway pitch, the story appears to have come slowly out of the gate. A Google search the day after the press release hit my email inbox found the story picked up only in the Lifestyle section of FODMAP Everyday, “a global low FODMAP diet and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) resource” that claims to “adhere to the evidence-based science put forth by both Monash University andFODMAP Friendly, whose researchers developed the low FODMAP diet.”
Now, in fairness to New Orleans-based personal injury lawyer Vicknair for whom Journo Research’s Pete Coutanche (who doesn’t appear anywhere among those 27 photos of staff) claims to be working as the “Digital PR” agent, the “study” of freeway deaths is at least as transparent as it is naive.
“The most recent data was scraped from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between 2017 – 2021,” the pitch says. “Data was filtered by state to find the number of driver fatalities occurring on different road types. The total number of freeway fatalities was calculated as a proportion of total fatalities over the five-year period for each state.
“Alaska takes first place on the list, with fatal freeway crashes accounting for 30.82 percent of all fatal traffic accidents statewide – almost double that of the national average of 16.04 percent. The data showed that 98 out of a total of 318 fatal road accidents occurred on the Alaskan freeways.
“Second place goes to Wyoming, where fatal freeway accidents account for 26.25 percent of all fatal road accidents within the state – over 10 percent higher than the national average….”
The problem here is that comparing Alaska freeways to Lower 48 freeways is like comparing blueberries to watermelons.
Vicknair obviously confused “interstate highways” with freeways (See the FHA definition above). This is an easy mistake to make when dealing with Alaska, and the difference between Alaska’s non-freeway interstate system and the rest of the nation’s freeway interstate system is why Alaska was left out of the TRIP report.
Alaska is, as in so many things, an exception. According to Richard Weingroff in the FHA’s Office of Infrastructure, the 49th state was granted a special designation for “four routes totaling 1,082 miles of Interstate highways” even though these are not freeways.
This was done to cut Alaska in on federal interstate funding. Alaska can probably thank the late Sen. Ted Stevens who was a master at ensuring Alaska got its “fair share,” and often more, of federal funds. The Alaska interstates “are designated A-1, A-2, A-3, and A-4,” according to Weingroff.
Wikipedia identifies A-1 as what Alaskans know as the Alaska Highway to Tok, the Tok Cutoff to the Richardson Highway, the Richardson to the Glenn Highway, and the Glenn to Anchorage. At 408.23 miles, this is the longest of Alaska’s “interstates,” all of which are unsigned.
Except for about 40 miles of this route along the Glenn between Palmer and Anchorage, the road is two lanes, sometimes with marginal or non-existent shoulders, and in places crowded by vegetation close to the road shoulders, which increases the risks of hitting a moose, caribou or bear.
The pavement is rough in places and the roads winding. And, of course, there is the Alaska weather which can make the road surface slippery almost any time of the year.
The other Alaska interstates are A-2, the 202.18 miles of the Alaska Highway from Tok north to Fairbanks; A-3, the 238.38 miles of the Seward and Sterling Highways from Anchorage south to Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula, and A-4, the road Alaskans know as the Parks Highway stretching 323.69 miles north from an intersection with the Glenn near Palmer to Fairbanks.
The only divided, four-lane sections of these roads exist in the Anchorage and Fairbanks Metropolitan areas and total less than 100 miles, making about one-tenth of the Alaska interstate system anything close to actual “freeways.”
The reality is that most of the state’s “interstate” is made up of “rural roads,” which are much more dangerous than freeways.
The Governor’s Highway Safety Association, a national road safety group, calls “America’s Rural Roads: Beautiful and Deadly.” In a 2022 study, the group reported rural roads are one and a half to almost two times deadlier than urban roads, and far deadlier than freeways.
Rural roads, the report said, are “hiding a deadly secret – nearly half of all fatal crashes occur on them, even though only 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas.”
World Population Reviews says that 35.1 percent of Alaskans live in rural areas, but beyond that the vast majority of Alaskans do a lot of driving on rural roads. The largely two-lane Seward and Sterling Highways are regularly plugged with them in July when dipnetters from the Anchorage Metro Area, home to more than half the state’s population, rush to the Kenai River to catch salmon.
According to National Highway Traffic Administration Data, 54 percent of Alaska’s 67 road fatalities in 2021 occurred on rural roads. Because many of these roads lack the broad shoulders found on freeways, the state has reported that about 38 percent of fatalities involve running off the road and hitting an object or rolling the vehicle and about 11 percent involve head-on collisions.
According to the Royal Automobile Club (RCA) of Australia, where head-on collisions at speed have been studied in depth, “at 90 kilometers per hour (56 mph), a head-on crash will kill you four times out of five.”
Given all of this, the death rate on Alaska’s freeway-free interstates would be expected to be significantly higher than the death rate on the actual freeways in the rest of the country.
In light of Alaska road conditions, it is actually probably surprising the state’s motor vehicle death rate is as low as it is. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety put the rate at 1.16 per 100 million miles traveled in 2021, below the national average of 1.37 per 100 million miles for the year.
The deadliest state was South Carolina where people died at the rate of 2.08 per 100 million miles. The safest state was Massachusetts where people died at the rate 0.71 per 100 million.
Alaska was in the bottom two-thirds of states for deadly roads and, given its few miles of actual “freeway,” it might well have the lowest freeway death rate in the nation – not the highest. But hey, who cares about such details?