Press releases are not actually gifts from PRs for you to slap a byline on and publish happily. Ethical journalists know the rules of using press releases. If you don’t, it’s time swot up.
To some journalists, press releases are manna from heaven. They’re pre-packaged articles with quotes and insights – all you need to do is cut a little, paste a little, edit a little, and you have a lot of lovely words to append your byline to. But here’s the thing: very few journalists are actually trained in their employers’ policies on press releases and don’t understand that the way that they’re adapting them is downright unethical.
Worse still, some publishing houses don’t even have a policy on the use of press releases and are just leaving journalists to their own devices. This has an impact on the quality of journalism that the publication produces and often makes its content indistinguishable from all the other publications that are doing exactly the same thing.
So here’s a list of guidelines to help you to know what to do with a useful press release when it arrives in your inbox.
Use a press release as a source or a tip – not as part of your article
This is the single most important thing to understand about the use or adaptation of a press release. Sure, the PR person is happy (delighted, actually) for journalists to use tracts of their copy exactly as they wrote it, but the ethical journalist only uses a press release as background information or insight – not as the story itself. If you’re writing an article, write it! Press releases should really only be seen as another source of information, much the same as the internet – and you wouldn’t copy and paste from there, would you?
Quoting press releases
If you would like to use some sentences or paragraphs from a press release exactly as they are written (because why rewrite for the sake of rewriting?), then say that’s what you’re doing, like so: “In a release from Company X, the company stated…”. To allow the paragraphs to be published under your byline is actually plagiarism.
Credit the spokespeople
The good news is, quotes from a press release are yours from the taking. However, depending on what type of media you work in, even these quotes should be attributed to a press release in this way: “Bob Smith said in a media statement”. While this may seem overly pedantic, and would never be adhered to in consumer magazine publishing, hard news reporters should do this to make it clear that an actual interview did not take place.
Don’t use old releases without following up
Old press releases are often saved for use at a later date, or published on company websites and available to anyone who searches for them. While the information they contain might have been relevant at the time, it’s vitally important to confirm with someone at the company that what they contain is still true. The numbers may have changed, the project might have been cancelled, or the spokesperson could have moved on to another company, so do this to avoid embarrassment and misinforming the public.
Don’t quote a press release out of context
This ethical consideration should be adhered to when using press releases in exactly the same way as when you’re interviewing people. If they said something, which, when taken on its own means something different to how it sounds when taken in context, then you have to provide the context. Don’t use the single sentence or paragraph that fits your story if that’s not really what the spokesperson meant.
And never pretend that a quote from a spokesperson is in response to a question that wasn’t asked.
Beware the ‘staff reporter’ byline
Many publications allow the publication of appropriate press releases under a ‘staff reporter’ byline. This is a misleading practice – allowing the public to think that some junior reporter wrote the article using their training in ethics and impartiality. These releases, even if they’ve been edited for tone or pruned of any obvious corporate fanfare, should still be marked as “press releases”. Alternatively, journalists can use a “blog” style in republishing releases, with an intro that goes something like this: “We’ve been wondering what’s been going on at Company X, so we were delighted to receive this press release this morning…” and then carry the press release in full, or with further commentary. Even those few sentences and honest attribution would make the piece worthy of a byline.
As hard as it may be to bin these gifts of time and effort, your investigative and writing skills will improve in leaps and bounds when you let go of the press release crutch that you shouldn’t be using in the first place. Journalists, move on. Editors, work through this list with your staff to make sure that everyone’s on the same page of your editorial policy.
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