Despite downturn, journalists still prefer to not use press releases

Stock Image by Deposit Photo
Stock Image by Deposit Photo
As American newsrooms have shrunk, reporters are increasingly shills for the dubious declarations of public officials.

Or, ah, is it all rather more complicated?

Research by a Georgia Southern University political scientist is suggesting that despite obvious trends in newsroom resources, there’s not necessarily any sharp hike in reporters being mere putty in the hands of politicians.

Michael Romano outlined a study of 10,000 congressional press releases to a small group at a large international academic gathering in Chicago last week. This constitutes the first real public disclosure of his paper, “Ventriloquism or an Echo Chamber? Measuring the Strength of House Members’ Rhetoric in Local Newspapers.”

He concludes that journalists come off far more as autonomous agents with their own standards than “ventriloquist dummies” blindly running with politicians’ claims.

“The notion that the press can’t come up with its own stories, and just acts as a propaganda arm, is a myth,” he said during a phone conversation Wednesday in which he elaborated on his research.

Romano randomly selected 60 congressmen who served in the 111th Congress, namely the two-year period of 2009-2010.

He utilized their websites and “used a computer script I had to scrape nearly everything from their websites,” meaning he’s pretty sure he got all their releases.

He then focused on newspapers in a congressman’s district and relied on the same plagiarism detection software that some teachers use for scrutinizing essays to determine if a student is cheating.

He analyzed similarities between stories found on a paper’s website and its print edition, on one hand, and the press release itself when a story referenced the congressman and the topic of the press release, including any quotes from the congressman found in the release.

“Once you run that analysis, you had to make sure things matched up the right way,” he said. “I looked at any apparent matches between the two [story and press release].”

Some releases, of course, got no attention. On the high end, when one was seemingly utilized, it was used about 57 percent of the time. Inspection of those helps to explain Romano’s assessment that “well-written releases that cater to a general audience do get used more often.”

Romano conceded that when he started off, he assumed that because of the media industry’s downturn, financially stretched newsrooms meant that “journalists would need these releases more often and more often prove uncritical.”

There is, he noted, a “huge literature” in the academic world about the press being distinctly uncritical and the subsequent dangers for democracy.

“But in the realm of this sample, it’s not something that plays out. I fully assumed that I would find more of the herd journalist, or the propaganda arm concept.”

“I was surprise, quite honesty, by what I did find,” he said. Even if what he deems well-crafted releases were used in some fashion by local papers, “that is not to say that a journalist is basically taking everything and not writing their own story.”

Ultimately, he doesn’t deny that newsroom declines impact quality or that politicians can hold sway over reporters in a world where fact checking is not reflexive and rampant. And he doesn't deny, either, that larger papers can resist the pressures to be pawns far more often than smaller ones.

“Having a D.C. bureau thus makes it easier not to rely on a release,” said Romano, whose academic work focuses mostly on American political institutions and mass media.

Still, when assessing where his study fits into conflicting past academic models of media behavior, his conclusion suggest “more of a symbiotic relationship than a puppet, ventriloquist act.”

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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