Back in September, Tristin Hopper who writes for the National Post, commented critically about a CBC article. He claimed it read too much like a press release. Criticism of the CBC is quite common by National Post writers. Being critical of the CBC is what Postmedia does and it’s part of their institutional narrative.
However, I think Hopper’s particular criticism was well founded. “If your headline is indistinguishable from a government press release, you’re doing it wrong,” Hopper complained. Yes, he was throwing red meat to the National Post base.
“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.” Columbia Journalism Review, Cristine Russell
Everyone in media relations eventually has the pleasant experience of journalists publishing the words they’ve written for them. Some commentators thought that the internet would lead to less of this. But economic pressures are not helping.
“Our local paper’s sports section is down from a dozen or more fulltime staffers to two such people. Many times they are running almost verbatim press releases from local sports information directors. The education beat locally used to include several reporters. Now there is one. He too depends greatly on press releases. So I have not seen a lesser dependence on press releases locally. In fact the opposite is true.” Phil de Haan, senior PR specialist, Calvin College
Just as an aside, I want to be clear that on my view, relying on press releases isn’t necessarily a bad thing.5
But because journalists gonna journo, they are more likely to attack the quality of their competitors than reflect critically about their own failures. In other words, everyone else is doing churnalism.6
Which brings me to my first point. I believe that the National Post has a much heavier dependence on press releases, and other forms of writing by “public relations” pros, than the CBC.
I have no data to substantiate this claim. And without data, this is simply an untested hypothesis.
Which brings me to my next point.
Testing this hypothesis is actually doable. To see which news agencies republish the words written by “public relations” people more often, you need only compare the data found in “news” dispatches with the data found in “public relations” dispatches. This kind of textual comparison has been done before. It’s not a small chore, but it’s one that is manageable by clever folks who care about public discourse and modern journalism.
News reports, after all, are open data.
Not all press releases are open data, but a clever research team could collect the required data to make this comparison meaningful.
Which brings me to my actual point. Press releases ought to be easily accessible. News organizations should publish or link to all press releases they use in their writing. This is not a new idea. People have been saying this for a decade.
“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.” Amy Gahran, 2008
- http://www.poynter.org/2012/182584/182584/182584/ ↩
- See also, Journalists Depend on PR Professionals for Primary Research and Context:
- See also The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism for an interesting review of some research doing textual comparisons of journalism on press releases. ↩
- There is a helpful review of the impact of press releases on journalism in The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, by Clay Johnson: https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Information_Diet.html?id=QrW62y9l3lYC&redir_esc=y ↩
- On my view, journalism is a species of public relations, much the same way that humans are a type of animal. The catch is that journalists don’t see themselves, or present themselves that way. The common attitude by journalists is that journalism is an entirely different beast from public relations and you can see this sentiment demonstrated by Hopper’s complaint about the CBC. ↩
- Even Ira Basen who is sympathetic to public relations, succumbs to the view that journalism is different: Journalists should study public relations. http://www.j-source.ca/article/opinion-why-all-journalists-should-study-public-relations ↩
- See also, http://dare.uva.nl/cgi/arno/show.cgi?fid=635557, http://journalism.wikia.com/wiki/Public_relations and https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/cornwall/en/hearings/exhibits/Mary_Lynn_Young/pdf/07_Meyer.pdf ↩
- Feature image of a press pass taken with permission from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Simons_Perskaart_DOM.jpg ↩