Transparency is becoming at least as important as — or perhaps more important than — objectivity in news today. This means: If it’s possible to link to your source or provide source materials, people expect you to do so. Failing to offer source links is starting to look about as shifty or lazy as failing to name your source.
Yesterday I wrote about how the New York Times missed an obvious opportunity for transparency by failing to link to (or publish) source documents released during a court case.
But also, a recent flap in Columbia Journalism Review has got me thinking about transparency. This flap concerns the role of press releases in science journalism. Freelance journalist Christine Russell kicked it off with her Nov. 14 CJR article, Science Reporting by Press Release. There, she wrote:
“A dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories. But recent newsroom cutbacks and increased pressure to churn out online news have given publicity operations even greater prominence in science coverage.
“‘What is distressing to me is that the number of science reporters and the variety of reporting is going down. What does come out is more and more the direct product of PR shops,’ said Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and media critic, in an interview. Petit has been running MIT’s online Knight Science Journalism Tracker since 2006. …In some cases the line between news story and press release has become so blurred that reporters are using direct quotes from press releases in their stories without acknowledging the source.
“This week, Petit criticized a Salt Lake Tribune article for doing just that. In an article about skepticism surrounding the discovery of alleged dinosaur tracks in Arizona, the reporter had lifted one scientist’s quote verbatim from a University of Utah press release as if it had come from an interview. ‘This quote is not ID’d as, but is, provided by the press release,’ Petit wrote in his critique. ‘If a reporter doesn’t hear it with his or her own ears, or is merely confirming what somebody else reported first, a better practice is to say so.'” (Note: I added the direct links to the article and release here.)
In other words, Petit is arguing for transparency. He recommends using extra words as the vehicle for transparency (i.e., adding something like “according to a university press release”). That is indeed a useful tactic. But we have more tools than words — we have links…
Petit called for transparency on the basis of professional ethics. That’s one very good reason to be transparent. But there’s also a practical consideration: avoiding embarrassment.
Your audience expects transparency. Furthermore, if they catch you not being transparent, they will “out” you — probably in a very public, findable, documented, linkable, and not-fun way. This will not help your credibility.
WHY DON’T MORE NEWS ORGS LINK TO PRESS RELEASES?
…I know that many talented, ethical journalists in the mainstream media do lift quotes and info from press releases without citing the release specifically. Usually, the closest that they come is saying: “According to company X” when citing facts. Almost never do I see a link from a mainstream news org to a press release.
There are many possible explanations for this — from journalists not wanting to take a moment to look up links, to news orgs using content management systems which make it hard or impossible to create links from within stories, to editors discouraging press release references for “style” reasons.
But I suspect that a core reason for this mild obfuscation is about appearances: Though they rarely admit it, news orgs and journalists dislike revealing how much of the everyday practice of journalism simply is not rocket science. Today, anyone with a computer can quickly acquire most of the source information which journalists rely upon.
And Russell’s correct that newsroom cutbacks only make it more tempting and practical to lift from press releases. Not just because of lack of time — but for a need to bolster the appearance of their own importance.
DON’T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OTHERS’ STATEMENTS
In fact, citing and linking to press releases isn’t just more transparent; it’s also safer. Not all press releases are created equal. Some are high-quality, well-sourced, and responsible — and they’re frank about their own spin, agenda, or interests. Others are, um, not.
When you lift quotes or info from press releases or other sources without attribution, you’re implicitly vouching for the accuracy and authenticity of those statements. In effect, you’re saying “This is what this person said,” or “This statement of fact or context is correct” — even though that information is actually secondhand. That’s not always a wise bet. Everyone messes up sometime. Just ask Judy Miller.
I was tipped off to the CJR flap over press releases by my colleague Earle Holland, a public information officer at Ohio State University who penned a sharp rebuttal to Russell’s salvo. CJR ran it on Nov. 19: Press Release by Science Reporting. Holland wrote:
“As to the quotes I’ve included in the [research-related] press releases I’ve done, they’re all direct statements by the sources, approved by the sources, and aren’t vetted by anyone else. No administrator okays them, nor do PR gurus spin them in any direction. …Also, in most cases, the research in question is work I’ve followed for years, giving me the same kind of knowledge advantage that a beat reporter has over a general assignment reporter in the newsroom. Does anyone really believe that a reporter’s blind call from even the most prestigious news media will yield the kind of information that comes from a reporting relationship that’s grown over years? I don’t think so. The last decade or so has seen top science PIOs shift their prime goal from coverage to credibility, since they know that the former depends on the latter.”
I’d argue that conscientious PR is in fact a valuable kind of news reporting. It’s not traditional objective journalism, but that doesn’t make it worthless. However, all PR should be presented as what it is: information (probably promotional) from an involved party.
When an organization publishes a press release on their own site, they’re being honest about that context, and they’re taking responsibility for their own statements. When a news org fails to attribute or link to that same press release, they’re misrepresenting context and assuming responsibility for the quality of another party’s information.
Personally, I’d rather not gamble on whose PR is high-quality. That can vary considerably by organization, PR person, time, and topic. If I don’t have time to or cannot contact the source directly, I’m all for passing the buck by linking back to the release. I’d rather be faulted for not confirming quotes directly than for glibly passing them along, implying I’d gathered or confirmed them independently.
…For that matter, this caution also applies to repeating quotes or other information from traditional news stories. Don’t blindly assume that the reporter got the quote or facts right. Instead, say: On [DATE] the Podunk Tribune quoted Joe Schmoe as saying… and link to the article.
Anyway, that’s my take on this issue. What’s yours? Please comment below.