July 25, 2012

When Steve Penn announced earlier this month that he’s suing the Kansas City Star, the news sparked an interesting discussion about journalists’ use of press releases and whether it’s OK to use them verbatim, without attribution.

Penn was fired from the Star last July after editors found that he had lifted material from press releases several times dating back to 2008. Penn says in his complaint that “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.”

But is it?

In an informal poll, we asked whether it’s OK for journalists to use press releases in their stories. Of more than 1,300 respondents, 20 percent said it’s OK to use them without attribution, and only 3 percent called this practice “plagiarism.” The majority said it’s fine to use press releases in stories if they’re attributed. (The Public Relations Society of America says using a press release without attribution isn’t plagiarism.)

The range of responses suggests that newsrooms would benefit from having discussions about how to ethically and effectively use press releases. I’ve come up with six related tips to keep in mind.

Think of press releases as a good starting point.

I’ve always thought of social media as a good starting point for finding sources and getting ideas. As helpful as social media can be, journalists still need to use their traditional reporting skills to follow up with the sources they find there and fact-check the information they get.

I think of press releases in a similar way. Press releases can make you aware of information you didn’t know. But when you rely only on releases and don’t do your own reporting, you might miss other key information that helps round out the story. Anyone can paraphrase or quote from a release. As a reporter, you have the skills to take it a step further.

Talk with your editor about paraphrasing/quoting from press releases.

Whether you’re a new reporter or a seasoned one, talk with your editor about how to best handle press releases. How does your newsroom typically handle them, and what are the expectations? Is your editor OK with you quoting from, or paraphrasing, them? What about quoting from them without attribution?

Having discussions about how to use press releases can give you a better understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable in your newsroom. If you don’t agree with your newsroom’s process for handling press releases, raise questions about the process with your editor. Just because your newsroom has been doing something a certain way for years, doesn’t mean it has to (or should) stay that way.

My philosophy is that it’s fine to use press releases in stories, as long as you’re transparent with your audience about where you got the information. Adding attribution lets your audience know where the information originated.

Determine whether the release is newsworthy.

When you get a release, ask yourself: Is this news relevant to my audience? Is the release worth a brief post? A longer story? A post and a longer follow-up story? Something more? Nothing at all? (At Poynter.org, we’ve taken all of these approaches.)

Unless I get a press release that’s completely unrelated to my beat (and this has happened on several occasions), I usually take the time to read the full release. That way, I can make a more informed decision about whether there is something newsworthy in it.

If the release has timely and important information in it that I want to get out quickly, I’ll write a short post and quote the full release. I always indicate that it’s a release, and I separate it into a block quote so that it’s distinguishable from my own words. If the release is not especially time-sensitive and I want to write a related story, I’ll start doing some reporting.

Prosecute the press release.

Press releases are often promotional. It’s up to you to make sure you’re not simply furthering an organization’s or person’s agenda. When reading press releases, look for gaps and try to fill them.

Are the facts in the release correct? Are names spelled correctly? Is there a local angle that would be relevant to your audience? What is missing from the story? Does the information in the release line up with what you know/have heard? Who else should you talk to for more information? Is there any chance this release could be a hoax? Asking smart questions can help inform your reporting.

Make the story your own.

Rather than just quoting or paraphrasing a release in a story, make your story stand out by including your own voice in it. Your voice is likely a lot more conversational and engaging than the language that’s used in releases.

Follow up with the person who sent the release or with the people quoted in it to get quotes that are different from the ones that everyone else will have. When necessary, add analysis and context that will help advance the information in the release. Chances are, if you do these things, you’ll be happier with the end result.

Find ways to get ahead next time.

When I get a press release about something relevant to my beat, I almost always respond and thank the person who sent it. If I want to keep getting releases, I encourage the person to continue sending them to me. And then I take it a step farther by letting the person know that, if possible, it would help to hear about information before it’s released.

This won’t work all the time, but sometimes it will — especially if you agree to hold the story until the release comes out. If a public relations person shares information with you before sending a release, you’ll have more time to do reporting and interview people.

Taking these steps will put you ahead of others who are hearing about the information in the release for the first time.

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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