Fired KC Star reporter sues, says using press releases isn’t plagiarism

Courthouse News Service
Steve Penn was fired by the Kansas City Star last July for using material from press releases in his columns. Editors found repurposed prose in “more than a dozen examples in Penn’s columns dating back to 2008.”

Now Penn is suing McClatchy Newspapers, the Star’s owner, asking for $25,000 plus punitive damages.

In his complaint, Penn, who joined the paper in 1980, says “the widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished, and preferably with no or minimal editing.” (You can read his complaint here.)

Penn maintains that copying from press releases was always OK at the Star and his firing resulted from management’s failure to make it clear that there’d been a shift in policy. “Acting pursuant to his training and to widespread practice at the newspaper, he would occasionally use in his general interest column press releases which described upcoming community events.”

In fact, Plaintiff’s experience and training at the Star was that such attribution was not required. … Nevertheless, one of those supervisors apparently objected to the widespread practice and without informing Plaintiff that it should no longer be followed, decided to “make an example” of Plaintiff and push for his firing.

Penn says the paper’s assertion that what he did was plagiarism defamed him and caused “damage to [Penn's] reputation and a loss of business standing and contacts as a professional” and has caused “lost job opportunities.”

The Star’s original article about Penn no longer appears to be online,
but Poynter’s Steve Myers summarized some of its points:

  • A column last month about the death of a restaurateur took “descriptive phrases and entire portions from a funeral parlor’s release.”
  • In March, he wrote a lead sentence that “was identical to the first sentence in a press release” and copied (or nearly copied) other paragraphs.
  • Another June column “repeated nearly an entire release about a partnership between the Duke Ellington family and Alaadeen Enterprises Inc. to aid U.S. veterans.”
  • Last year, WUSA in Washington, D.C., removed a story from its website after a Web producer there copied material into a story thinking it was from a press release, when it was, in fact, from The Washington Post. The producer told Poynter she’d been working on rewriting five press releases at the time.

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    • Kevin Hall

      Sorry, but the need for your CEO to take home millions of quid a year at the expense of enough newsroom personnel to do the expected job is NOT a reason to compromise credible journalism.

      If your staff can’t independently confirm the facts in a press release with the privileged sources for that info, and get their own quotes heard with their own ears, then you have no business printing it and calling it journalism. A newspaper that uses press releases verbatim is nothing more than a community bulletin board. A better choice for a news editor would, imho, be to tell advert to make fuller stacks or insert house ads, because you don’t have enough news copy to fill.

      Perchance, did you work for Gannett when your staff was halved? 

    • Kevin Hall

      That’s shocking that you admit as a news reporter you’d use a direct quote you didn’t get firsthand. Secondhand attribution doesn’t protect YOUR credibility. That breaks a fundamental rule of journalism: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

      When I was in j-school, an offense like that wouldn’t just get you an F for the assignment, but an automatic F for the entire course. How times have changed. No wonder it’s hard to trust any news media anymore.

      As a managing editor, I once had a bureau chief send up an 25” feature bylined “Staff Report.” Something struck me as strange about the specialty of one of the quoted characters, allegedly a big deal in the profession. What I found online was, surprisingly, no other mention about this alleged bigwig anywhere on the Internet — strange, if such a person really existed.

      Even stranger, I found the entire 25” story — verbatim, no more, no less – already published in a magazine, with another person’s byline. The person claiming authorship of that story was a PR flack whose company either farmed his stuff out with his name, or he farmed it out independently (whether or not that would violate PR ethics, I don’t know).

      Had we run it, savvy readers would have seen “Staff Report” as flagrant plagiarism by the newspaper.

      But that wouldn’t have been the worst sin. I firmly believe the author fabricated the source (and, thus, the quote). Because the source’s innovation was key to the “news” of the feature, I doubt the validity of any and all facts in that story that was published elsewhere.

      Wasn’t it “Curveball,” the fake source that NYT reporter Judith Miller never met (if I remember right) and didn’t vet when Dick Cheney produced him for her quotes, that was a turning point for public support of the pointless war in Iraq?

      Don’t EVER steal quotes you didn’t hear, Ms. Bower! What journos do should still matter to democracy and civilized society. 

    • Kevin Hall

      The AP is a member cooperative, so it’s still quasi-staff material. AP material comes from AP and member news organization’s journos, not public relations professionals pushing a one-sided agenda. Not even close to the same thing.

    • Anonymous

      I think I agree with the fundamental philosophy of The Star, but the reality is, especially among smaller newspapers that news releases are used word for word. In fact, as someone who has worked both sides of the fence, I can say it is the sincere hope of most who generate news releases that they will be used in this manner. So from a legal standpoint, I doubt we can call it plagiarism in its purest sense because it’s done with the blessing of the writer. I agree with those who say that maybe we should use the releases with better attribution. But having worked for The Indianapolis Star, I would say it was always preferable to write our own articles and treat the release more like a news tip. That being said, most newspapers don’t seem to have a problem with printing articles from the AP that aren’t attributed. Many articles that appear to come from the AP started out as bylined articles in a newspaper. Sometimes, the lead gets rewritten a little. And one time, I even had an AP reporter ask me for any leftover notes I had from an event I covered that didn’t make it into my article. Now THAT’s questionable.

    • Anonymous

      Press releases are written to be “plagiarized.” In fact, that’s the PR home run. A story appears just as you wrote it. Small newspapers print unedited releases all the time. Obviously, it’s a little lazy to do it this way. And you should certainly check the facts before printing them. I have a feeling there is more to this firing  than meets the eye.

    • Katherine

      If journalists don’t write their own stuff or even fact check the materials they’re given, what exactly are they being paid for?

    • Katherine

      If journalists don’t write their own stuff or even fact check the materials they’re given, what exactly are they being paid for?

    • Pete

      What he said ^

    • Melissa Bower

      Really hard to say what I think about this without seeing exactly how the information was presented. If someone gives me a press release with a quote from a source that I wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise, I would definitely use it (with attribution) or gave me facts in a press release that I wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise I would also use that with attribution. I think the bigger issue beyond plagiarism would be lack of balancing sources – if you’re spitting out exactly what a company/organization gave you in a press release without opposing or secondary viewpoints, that’s not journalism.

    • Mo Ilyas

      A few brief thoughts from this side of the pond aka the UK. As a former news editor on a regional daily, the practice of using press releases for content was, and even more so now is, very common, certainly when it comes to the news pages. A lot of this is down to how newspapers have had to ‘economise’ i.e. get rid of staff, which means those left behind are grateful for material that helps them fill pages. Nowadays quantity is more important than quality i.e. fill the pages, prioritise what few resources you have and try & do the best you can under ever-increasing threats of redundancy, newspaper closures, etc. I used to manage a team of reporters that was halved over two years. Yet the number of pages to be filled remained more or less the same. Every journalist would like to do 100% original, own-sourced & written in their own hand stories & years ago reporters would spend days chasing a single story. Not any more. The reality for many is that newspapers have turned into factories, just pumping out as much as they can with fewer and fewer staff. It’s far more complex than “If you can’t write your own stuff, you are in the wrong business” as one of your posters has remarked. Anyway, hope you don’t mind the link to my (very occasional) blog

    • tory patrick

      After reading this article (twice), I am still unsure what side I fall on. If he took information from a press release that a company widely distributed for the purposes of editors to use, what’s the problem? As a PR pro, my job is to get my client’s release into the hands of editors/reporters in the hopes that they will write something. As Penn states in his complaint, “the widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished, and preferably with no or minimal editing.” I agree.
      I see a few comments that mention this reporter’s deception. Having not seen the articles that are in question, I cannot make a judgement. However, I doubt his intent was deception. He was merely taking a release that was given to him and getting the information out there to his readers. Which is his job.

      If we want something to kill the press release (I haven’t seen the 2012 version of Die, press release, die yet…but I’m sure it’s coming!), this is it. If reporters can’t take what we (PR) are putting out there and use it for a news piece, then there really isn’t a point in putting the release out there, in my opinion.

      I look forward to following this discussion as more PR pros (and hopefully journalists, too) weigh in.

    • Anonymous

      When I was a radio news reporter, I’d rip and read AP copy from the teletype without attribution, which was allowed under our contract with AP.  Was I plagiarizing?

    • Sarah O’Hara

      The person writing it doesn’t want to see someone else’s byline on their work. That would be complicity in a fraud, a deception.  PR people do have ethics, too. 

      It’s disappointing that so many of my peers appear to be loose in what they judge worthy of byline. Ah, for the old days when bylines were earned, not mindlessly put atop everything, even 2-inch press release briefs.

    • Sarah O’Hara

      Well said.

    • Sarah O’Hara

      I have a close friend who writes press releases for a prominent nonprofit. She is happy when her work is published, but NOT under someone else’s byline. That’s plagiarism, she says. She loses all respect for the reporter and the publication when this has happened to her work.

      Organizations don’t expect their writers to get bylines, but they are not offering it so someone else can get a byline deceptively. They expect it to be either published attributed to the organization, or not attributed or bylined at all, as in events calendar items.

      In my thinking, it’s nuts to think it’s OK at any level to use someone else’s exact words and information someone else gathering and call it your own.

      When I’ve been told to “rewrite a press release,” it means to use it for source info to start a story from scratch. I’ve never, ever thought my editor was expecting any part of the press release back word for word. If the editor wanted word for word, the editor would have copy/pasted it him/herself.

    • Anonymous

      Press releases are useful, but must be treated with the same skepticism as any other piece of information: their sources identified, their assertions accepted only provisionally until checked for accuracy by other means. But to present “borrowed” words as your own work – or even as your own opinion – is not just lazy, it’s also fundamentally dishonest.

    • Michael Rosenblum

      If you can’t write your own stuff, you are in the wrong business. Go find another job.

    • Anonymous

      and why don’t you know the rules? because management would rather make them up to suit them when a situation arises —- AND when they are looking for an excuse to fire somebody.

    • Anonymous

      It’s as simple now as it was back in school: if you didn’t write it, don’t put your name on it as if you did.

      Press releases are adverts or reference material, not pre-written fodder.

    • Anonymous

      Rule of Thumb:  If it came from an agency in a news release format, it likely isn’t newsworthy and should be in a “Briefs” column format.

    • Anonymous

      Rule of Thumb:  If it came from an agency in a news release format, it likely isn’t newsworthy and should be in a “Briefs” column format.

    • Lonny Dunn

      Journalists ceased being journalists, oh about the Time Dan Rather,  and that other hack trashed Bush without properly vetting the story, and just went in with both guns blazing in an attempt to skew an election.

      What HAS changed, was that ten years ago a self styled, and self proclaimed journalist would get severely reprimanded and fired.  Now they just spew their own facts and opinions blatantly, and there are no more professionals, they are tainted mouthpieces for their own agendas or whomever they serve. 

      So there is something more to this instant story than we are hearing in Court papers, or from Plantiff and Defendant.  THERE IS ALWAYS more than we are really hearing.  Sounds like a case of the Supervisor not liking the guy, or he has an agenda, and this guy is not part of the Supervisors overall agenda, and he is using this “RePublishing Press Release” Stuff as an excuse to terminate. 

      As to the act of publishing a Press Release? That is what they are for, and to DO ANYTHING BUT PUBLISH THEM IN THEIR ENTIRETY would be  manipulation, and censorship. Unless they are source material, to wit:  “As stated in the ACME Press Release……”  and so on.   The line is drawn against Plaintiff if he is publishing Press Releases as his own work.  That IS a fireable offense, and who the heck wants some idiot working for them who publishes other entity’s Press Releases and puts his/her own name to them? That’s just stupid. 

      Again, we don’t know enough about this story to make any fair judgement based on what little we know, but I Voted for “Yes, If Attributed”.

      Lonny Dunn, Editor/Author 

      I Tweet at @ProNetworkBuild:disqus

    • Anonymous

      Regurgitating press release driven “news” isn’t journalism.

      It’s PR, advortorial writing, free advertising, or just plain free ink – so it’s really something that a clerk should be doing while the real reporters do their job!  

    • Anonymous

      When you pose a threat to someone, or when some member of management just doesn’t like you – they’ll say & do just about anything to get rid of you Steve.

      That’s just the newspaper business, besides, if you knew all of the rules, then management wouldn’t have the upper hand!

    • Alan Fisher

      As a columnist – to do this without attribution is poor writing.  For a news reporter to do it – it’s just plain lazy.  Unfortunately many organisations are happy to encourage this (described by journalist Nick Davies) churnalism to up the story count from journalists.  The bigger worry must be verification.  Surely no journalist just accepts what’s in a news release without challenging it first.  If that’s the case – no that is worrying.

    • Jojo Pasion Malig

      A good way to have journos rewrite press releases? Send the text in .jpeg format.

    • Anonymous

      it is not unusual for newspapers — particularly smaller ones — to publish press releases verbatim without attribution. often, though, they are rewritten and published without attribution. and everybody in the business knows it. now, of course, attibuting info to a press release is much more common than in the  past. plagiarism? huh? given the radically liberal definition of plagiarism that some people use these days,  just about any reporter can be nailed for plagiarism — IF an editor wants to nail him for some reason. by the way, where do editorial writers get all that information on which they base all those opinions?

    • Anonymous

      I pretty much agree with Matthew. My response would be “Yes, but it’s lazy.” It cannot be called plagiarism because you aren’t stealing anything. The person who gave you the release wants nothing more than for you to use every word as written. But I think the public should be told it is coming from a release.

    • Justin LaBerge

      As a Kansas City-based PR guy, here’s my take. In my mind, there is an important distinction between columns and news stories. When I read a column, I assume I am hearing from the columnist in his/her own voice. Straight news stories, on the other hand, I view as more of a set of facts, compiled and woven together by the journalist. When compiling a set of facts, using info straight out of a news release makes sense to me. But I do find it odd when that occurs in a column without attribution…not because we want the attribution, but because it seems like the right thing to do for transparency.

    • Matthew Hensley

      For staff reports, yes w/ attribution; for bylined pieces, no – it’s lazy and dishonest, but not plagiarism.