Traditional journalists have long been defined by their independence and integrity, beholden to no one but the public. As Adolph S. Ochs, the founding father of the modern New York Times, put it in 1896, he was committed ‘’to give the news impartially, without fear or favor.”

But lately, American media are being complicit in their own decline, undermining their authenticity and trustworthiness by allowing people to pose as reporters and blurring the line between editorial content and paid advertising.

One of the more egregious abuses of the journalism standard is at Metro, the Portland area’s regional elected government. Here, a former Hillsboro Argus news writer is being marketed as a “reporter” providing “objective, written news coverage” of Metro.

Metro created the position in 2010, insisting the “reporter” would get in-house style, spelling and other editorial support, but could decide what topics to pursue and would not have his or her work edited for content.

The hire, Nick Christensen, had previously covered Metro and western Washington County for the Argus. Prior to that, he served as managing editor of the Summerlin Home News near Las Vegas and as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.

Now reporting to Metro’s communications director, Jim Middaugh, Christensen is referred to as “Metro news editor” and as a “news reporter” for Metro on the agency’s website.

Access by a true reporter to the inner corridors of power can translate into aggressive, groundbreaking, fiery media stories, but it’s not likely that Metro’s in-house “reporter” will produce such stories. It’s clear from a review of his prosaic, process-oriented writing to date that he’s not going to be a Woodward or Bernstein exposing seamy government practices.

Instead, Christensen’s stories are carefully crafted press releases masquerading as independent news reporting. Metro even asks, “In the interest of disclosure to readers,” that media attribute content from Christensen’s writings to him and identify him as a news reporter for Metro.

Making things worse, local media, including the Hillsboro Tribune, have bought into Metro’s ruse, frequently citing Christensen’s comments as those of a reporter and last week running his “article” about a land-use bill in Salem. This even though Middaugh has admitted that Christensen’s work is “definitely public relations.”

Middaugh has justified Christensen’s identification as a “reporter” on the basis that government has a responsibility to keep people informed in the face of public cynicism — apparently unaware that misleading the public feeds that cynicism.

Christensen’s stories are, let’s be honest, the equivalent of advertising disguised as news.

In that respect, he fits right in with the deliberate blurring of the divide between advertising and editorial content that’s going on across the media landscape, eroding public trust in journalism.

In case you haven’t noticed, digital and print media are increasingly featuring sponsored content, or “native advertising” created or developed by a business or special interest seeking to influence viewers.

To put it simply, the news business is slowly being corrupted by practices such as native advertising and media’s willingness to go along with things like Metro’s attempt to pass Christensen off as a reporter. If it isn’t controlled, readers’ trust will be lost.

So, let’s get started by all getting on the same page and calling a P.R. guy a P.R. guy. For Metro, that would be good P.R.

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

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