Press releases: If you use them, say so and LINK BACK!

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…
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NYTimes.com: Source documents, please?

Today the New York Times published on its site this story by Gardiner Harris: Research Center Tied to Drug Company.

Public documents are the crux of this corruption story — specifically, “e-mails and internal documents from Johnson & Johnson made public in a court filing.”

The article included lots of detailed background on this complex case. However, it failed to supply or link to the source documents — or even cite the case (court, case name, docket number) in a way that would allow interested people to find the documents on their own.

I see this a lot, and it confounds me. Here, the New York Times evidently believes its readers are savvy enough to understand the risks of commercial interests undermining scientific research and — in this case — possibly putting kids’ physical and mental health at risk.

…But they expect me to just take their word about what those documents said? They don’t think I’d care to see the original context in which the statements they quoted were made? They don’t even think I might want to be able to look up the documents, or follow the case?

Obviously, the New York Times has these documents. Also, these documents are public information — so you don’t have to worry about breaking copyright or confidentiality. So why didn’t the Times simply present them?…

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Geneva Overholser: Transparency Trumps Tradition

On Saturday I attended an event held by the Northern CA chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was covering the keynote panel, “New Money, New Media, New Hope,” live via my amylive Twitter account. Fellow journo and Twitter user Saleem Khan submitted a couple of questions for me to ask the panel. However, the panel ended before I got a chance to pose them.

Fortunately afterward I caught up with one of the panelists, Geneva Overholser, who’s about to take the helm at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. She was kind enough to offer some thoughtful answers to Khan. Here’s what she had to say.

(Note: My apologies for the different audio levels between the intro and the interview. I recorded on two different devices and edited in iMovie HD, which I don’t yet know very well, so it’s a little clunky. I’m still learning.)

Here’s more info about who was on this panel…

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