News releases are not news

News releases are not news. They might be newsworthy, and they might share information that can become news. But, in and of themselves, news releases are not news. They are a one-sided, unbalanced pitch originally intended for journalists who would, hopefully, create some news stories with them. In our modern communications era, they are used to spread information with a certain perspective to the public, as well, through websites and social media outlets.

It is abhorrent behavior then, for news outlets to take these news releases and print them verbatim on a news website. And yet, that’s exactly what happened recently with two outlets in Lansing — WILX TV 10 and the Lansing State Journal. They took a news release sent out by Sparrow Hospital and Hayes-Green Beach Memorial Hospital that explained a growing partnership between the two medical centers. The State Journal didn’t even bother to remove the sentence in the middle that announced a joint call for the media that day, including the passcode for the telephone press conference! The hospital actually had to change the passcode since the LSJ decided to announce it publicly through its latest veiled attempt at being a professional newspaper.

I do not fault Sparrow, Hayes-Green Beach or anyone involved in the public relations industry for what happened. It is their job to get the news distributed with as much of their information and perspective as possible. I’ve been in the journalism or PR business combined for more than 20 years. I’ve been on the receiving end and the sending end of news releases. I know how they are used and why they are used and have no complaints with that. I don’t even mind that we in the PR industry can now bypass the media and go straight to the public. I believe the public is smart enough to understand that what an organization is putting on its website is expected to be one sided. But are they savvy enough to figure that out when looking at a supposedly unbiased and objective news website? The problem is that as soon as that news release is posted to a legitimate news organization’s website, it’s no longer just a news release — it’s deceptive reporting.

WILX and the Lansing State Journal clearly shirked their duty to perform reliable, responsible journalism. The journalism industry is already suffering from a credibility gap, and acting as a shill for a public relations machine — either deliberately or through sheer laziness — is only expanding that gap.

Here are some screen shots of the news release, as well as the WILX and LSJ websites where it was posted:

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8 comments on “News releases are not news

  1. Good sunshine-aiming, Ari. Shame on them both for descending to the level of neighborhood “pennysaver” giveaways — ad delivery systems cloaked as free newspapers.

    LSJ labels the source, at least, though I agree that unedited handouts pollute what should be a clear stream of value-added editorial content. And WLIX flat-out lies on the line that falsely claims “Reporter: News 10.”

    Passing off verbatim releases as journalistic content is an unethical ruse that betrays readers’ trust — an asset that legacy media should value higher than these Lansing shortcut-takers clearly do,

    Glad you call ’em on it, Media Watchdog.

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    • Thanks, Alan. I agree the LSJ tried to make things a little better by labeling the source, but it’s not very noticeable and still doesn’t excuse how it the news release was handled.

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    • That’s a good point, Mark, although I’m not sure that’s such a kosher situation, either. I’m wondering, also, if the scrolling PR Newswire stuff is more clearly labeled as such, instead of in these cases where it was made to look more like an actual news story provided by local reporters, especially in TV 10’s case. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  2. As a new professional, I don’t have years of experience working with the journalism industry. That said, of the experience I do have, I see this happen more often than not with the releases I do distribute.

    A press release is essentially the shell of a story: the basic who, what, where, when and why that provides the main point and a clear hook for the reporter. Using a press release as a written story lacks the human element, or the translation of why this is important to a specific audience, that reporters are so key to digging for and providing.

    On one hand, I appreciate seeing my press releases in multiple outlets, but on another, if it doesn’t translate to the readers as important – it does me no good in the end at all.

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    • Great comment, Angela. It makes me wonder — if you started writing press releases with more of a human element, would even more news outlets publish them verbatim? That would be making a bad situation even worse in terms of journalistic integrity, but I could see savvy PR people taking this on and having more success than ever for their organizations or clients. It raises an interesting ethical question though: if the journalism industry is turning itself into a PR-parroting machine, is it really the job of the public relations industry to fix that, or should we just take advantage of it?

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  3. I had been a reporter for my college newspaper, but then branched out to try different stuff. I ended up writing a release for a group I was in – but since I knew nothing about press releases, I wrote it up as a semi-slanted news story. When one of the student papers printed it verbatim, I got mad. But then I realized: isn’t this exactly what I wanted? My unfiltered message got out to everyone! Great PR – but horrible journalism.

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    • I think that’s the question that Angela was asking. If the story isn’t told honestly, is that really great for public relations? Maybe it is for a campaign tactic, but I’m not so sure about the industry as a whole. Thanks for reading the blog post and commenting, Jam!

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