I just noticed that Matt Haiduk posted a complaint a few weeks ago at his Kane County Criminal Lawyer blog about how often news stories about crime are based on nothing but press releases:
If you read a newspaper article and don’t know what’s going on, you’d think a newspaper reporter was sitting in a courtroom watching trials as they unfold. That certainly does happen a lot of the time. What happens more often is that a reporter sits in for parts of a trial. […]
Anyhow, what seems to be happening more often (especially in Kane County) is that media and press releases are pushed out to media outlets, who then write stories based largely on the reports. Of course, those reports are coming from the Kane County State’s Attorneys office, and the police departments.
Haiduk then goes on to give an example by quoting parallel bits of text from a press release from the Kane County prosecutor’s office and from an uncredited story in the Elgin Courier News. It’s not quite word for word, but it’s close.
There’s nothing unethical about working from a press release — it’s a statement from a source, just like any other — but when that’s the only source of information, it makes the story unbalanced. In this story, for example, there’s no evidence that anyone at the paper tried to get a statement from the defendant or her lawyer. Every attribution is to the prosecutor’s office. Furthermore, given the minimal rewrite of the press release, it’s pretty lazy. I imagine that’s why there’s no reporter’s name on it. And I guess the credit to “Submitted Reports” is the paper’s way of saying they used a press release.
This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, and it’s not just police and prosecutors or even just government. In newspaper terminology (somewhat obsoleted by the internet) the combined amount of print space in the whole paper that’s not advertising is called the “news hole.” And the news hole has to be filled every day.
(On the internet, it’s less about filling the hole and more about pushing out enough content to get enough people to click on the ads, so everyone gets a paycheck.)
Some days, there’s so much going on that the news hole isn’t large enough and stories get left out or saved for later. But on days when there’s not enough news, the editors have to look for filler, and press releases are an easy source of material. This happens a lot, especially in business reporting, which is why most major corporations issue press releases. A whole distribution network has sprung up to handle the flow.
For example, I picked a large company that doesn’t normally generate a lot of media coverage (so not Microsoft or Apple) and visited their press releases page. Then I opened the most recent story “Caterpillar Announces Officer Retirement” and picked a short paragraph near the top:
After more than 15 years with Caterpillar, Hans Haefeli, vice president with responsibility for the Advanced Components & Systems Division (ACSD), has elected to retire to return to the United Kingdom. Haefeli’s retirement will be effective April 30, 2014.
That paragraph doesn’t have a quote in it, so the news media would have no obligation to report it verbatim.
I dropped that paragraph into Google search and looked at the results. The first result is the Caterpiller press release itself. The rest are news outlets:
- MarketWatch reprints it verbatim off of PR Newswire, and properly labels it as a press release.
- As does the Wall Street Journal.
- Rental Equipment Register reports it as a story.
- HighBeam Research rewrites it as a story about the the replacement and hides part of it behind a paywall.
- Jutia Group pulls a piece of it off of PR Newswire, and throws in a bunch of other boilerplate.
- ABC 27 (WHTM), out of Harrisburg, PA quotes it verbatim as coming from “an independent third-party content provider” which is apparently PR Newswire.
- Benzinga pulls it from PR Newswire.
- NBC 26 (WAGT), out of Augusta, GA also quotes it verbatim as coming from “an independent third-party content provider” which is apparently PR Newswire. It looks like ABC 27 and NBC 26 are both getting the PR Newswire feed from some sort of news service called WorldNow.
- The WorldNow version also hits NBC 4, KXXV, WSPA, maybe CNN Money, KCEN, WJHL, Toledo News Now, and many, many more.
There are three lessons here: First, if you want to learn about the world from the news media, learn to tell the difference between news reporting and reprinted press releases.
Second, if you want to get your version of the story out, write press releases. If you’re not sure how, there are plenty of unemployed journalists these days who would be willing to help for a small fee, but basically you just write a story about yourself or whatever you want people to know about. It has to have the same structure and tone as a real news story, and it shouldn’t be full of blatant cheerleading, but there’s no need to bother with balance. Also, remember this is just filler, so it only just barely has to be newsworthy — you wouldn’t believe the crap I get as press releases in my blog email.
Here, let me see if I can make up an example:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Attorney Haiduk Blasts Elgin Courier News Editors
December 10, 2013, Geneva, Illinois — Kane Country criminal defense attorney Matthew J. Haiduk lashed out at the Elgin Courier News over their practice of rewriting press releases and publishing them as if they were reporting actual news.
“If you read a newspaper article and don’t know what’s going on, you’d think a newpaper reporter was sitting in a courtroom watching trials as they unfold,” said Haiduk before providing examples of a December 6th Courier story and a press release the same day from the Kane County State’s Attorney Office which had multiple sections that were nearly word-for-word identical.
“It’s not so much an article as it is a rebroadcast of a prosecutor’s statement about the outcome of the case,” said Haiduk, who went on to describe the problem as widespread and recurring. “This happens nearly every day, all over Chicagoland.”
(You’d need to polish it and pad it out a bit, but that’s easy to do when you can quote yourself as saying something because there you are, saying what you said, right there in the press release!)
The third lesson is to use PR Newswire, or something like it. The PR Newswire website describes itself as “the authoritative source of news and information for leading global media organizations,” which certainly seems to be true, given the large number of media organizations quoting from it.
In two places, there are big green buttons labeled “Send a News Release” which take me to an “Online Member Center” that offers such wonders as:
- Content Distribution
- Targeting Monitoring and Measurement
- Online Engagement
- Social Media Distribution
- Multimedia Content Submission
- Online Press Kits
I don’t have an account, of course, but clicking “Sign up to get started” takes me to the membership signup page, which tells me that for $195 per year I will get:
- Ability to distribute news via the newswire network with the greatest reach and most comprehensive reporting in the industry…
- Pre-registration, verification, and setup for news release distribution…
- Quarterly re-authentication of all of your organization’s “authorized senders”…
- Complimentary access to Premium, member-only webinars that teach you how to effectively leverage your content and engage with your key audiences…
- Complimentary organizational archive (with logo) on www.prnewswire.com, our award-winning, heavily trafficked, and search-engine optimized news and information site, attracting over 2,800,000 unique visitors each month.
- 24/7/365, concierge-level professional services and customer support
- Complimentary phone/webinar training for all major services. Extra fees may apply for in-person training.
- Complimentary audience engagement counseling. We’ll provide you with effective guidance to help you achieve your communications objectives.
Manipulating the media about big things is hard — just ask the NSA and the President — but when it comes to the small stories, it sounds like you can do it for a low annual fee, billable to your credit card.
Matt Haiduk says
The scary thing is not only the rate at which some police and state’s attorney’s offices are generating the reports but also the the insane percentage of them that are being rebroadcast (by seemingly “legit” outlets) nearly verbatim. I’m betting it’s at least 75% (if not closer to 90%) of all small town/suburban “local” crime news. Mundane court news is being decorated and pushed out as something “special.”
Mark Draughn says
I’m not sure what to make of it. Journalists on the crime beat have always been a bit under the thumb of their sources — police and prosecutors — so I’m not sure whether reprinting press releases represents a decrease in objectivity or an increase in transparency.