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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