November 27, 2012

The problem with lifting from press releases


Early Monday, a fake press release was released on PRWeb, causing many websites, including The Associated Press, to run an incorrect article about Google making a $400 million acquisition of ICOA, an internet wireless company.

The release, which, according to the AP’s retraction seems to have come from Aruba, made ICOA’s stock jump and spread around the internet in an instant.

Besides the potential for financial irregularities — the AP said “the incident suggested a so-called “pump and dump” scheme in which false information is leaked, allowing a speculator to profit from rapid buying and selling,” — the incident shows just how mainstream press release journalism has become.

Dozens of tech blogs and news outlets posted the news, clearly without doing their legwork. The ICOA CEO George Strouthopoulos — it seems no one bothered to call him — had to reach out to deny the story. Any desire for accuracy was left behind in the battle to post first.

Darrell Etherington, who reported the story on TechCrunch, later wrote,

“It turns out that a PR agency or some other individual gone rogue was dead wrong on this. The announcement that crossed the wire is said to be not true at all, as per ICOA’s CEO, and now also confirmed by Google.

I was wrong on this post, for following up with Google and the other company involved but posting rather than getting waiting on a solid confirmation beforehand from either source.”

Ingrid Lunden, also on TechCrunch, blamed the dubious originator of the release, but also referred to the incident as “process journalism.”

This is incorrect.

Process journalism refers to the publishing of a story before it has been fully fact-checked, or as events are unfolding. What happened here, rather, was that a journalist lifted straight from a press release, with no indication of even beginning the fact-checking process.

Back in 2009, the New York Times addressed the journalistic methods of tech news outlets, talking with TechCrunch’s founder Michael Arrington.

“He doesn’t have the luxury of a large staff to confirm everything, so [Arrington] competes where he has the advantage. “Getting it right is expensive,” he says. “Getting it first is cheap.””

Arrington’s rebuttal to the Times article read,

“Some people ask why we don’t just wait until we have the whole story before posting. That’s where the cheap/expensive quote above comes in. The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process. CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information.”

Many online media outlets were built on process journalism, and whether you love it or hate it, rumors reported by TechCrunch, All Things D and others have turned out to be correct. Press release journalism, however, is something else.

Of course, bloggers are under pressure to churn out many stories throughout the day, to gain as many pageviews as possible, and in this case, be first. But this surely can’t justify simply re-writing, word for word, entire press releases. Especially given press releases are written for the purpose of delivering one-sided news, and facts constructed for the express benefit of the group releasing it.

Earlier this year, Steve Penn was fired from the Kansas City Star for plagiarising press releases. In response, on PoynterGerard Corbett, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, said that “direct quotes, facts or figures from press releases” should be attributed, but not dates and times. He didn’t seem to mind press release mining, naturally.

“While public relations professionals are usually willing to overlook the ethics of a news organization publishing their content without attribution, given the benefits that accrue to their companies or clients as a result (all key messages delivered!), journalists still are facing scrutiny and criticism over the practice.”

Lifting from press releases is standard practice in the newsroom, many argue, but in a time when anyone can release a press release through PRWeb or PR Newswire, people should question their veracity, especially those whose job it is to question.

Process journalism has its critics, but surely press release journalism is simply lazy and shouldn’t only be scrutinized when a bunch of journalists have been had.



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.