News That Isn't

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March 03, 2006

PR AND BLOGGER ETHICS: I talked to a reporter about blogs and PR -- I won't spoil the story, but the gist is that some PR people have been sending stuff to bloggers, and some bloggers have apparently reprinted some of it without attribution.

I think that's bad, but as I stressed in our interview, it's not as if this supports a "bloggers lack the standards of mainstream journalism" conclusion. In fact, here's a bit from The Appearance of Impropriety on that topic:

Thirty-five years ago Daniel Boorstin wrote of what he called "pseudo-events," and noted that much of what passes for news is actually made up of items manufactured by public relations flacks and distributed to the public by way of news organizations. The news organizations, he wrote, go along with this sort of thing out of a need for material, and out of laziness: it's just easier to take predigested material and reprint it than it is to come up with real news. In tones of dismay, Boorstin reported that the National Press Club in Washington was equipped with racks holding the handouts from press conferences throughout the capital, in order to save the reporters the trouble of actually attending. As Boorstin went on to note:

We begin to be puzzled about what is really the "original" of an event. The authentic news record of what "happens" or is said comes increasingly to seem to be what is given out in advance. More and more news events become dramatic performances in which "men in the news" simply act out more or less well their prepared script. The story prepared "for future release" acquires an authenticity that competes with that of the actual occurrences on the scheduled date.

The practice Boorstin described has not gone away: it has expanded into new frontiers. Technology in the early 1960s was primitive, and favored live or minimally-produced television news; as a result, that medium acquired a reputation for realism and immediacy that print reporting lacked. A print story could be made up, but an image on television was real. But nowadays, when many high schools have network-quality television studios, and when videotape is sold at convenience stores, that has changed. Although a "video news release" is still more expensive to produce than a standard paper press release, they have become much more common. According to a recent poll, seventy-five percent of TV news directors reported using video news releases at least once per day.

These releases, with their high quality images and slick production, are produced by companies and groups who want to get their message across, but don't want simply to purchase advertising time. They are designed so that television producers at local stations or (less often) major networks, can simply intersperse shots of their own reporters or anchors (often reading scripted lines provided with the release) to give the impression that the story is their own. Their use has been the subject of considerable controversy within the journalistic profession, although some commentators have claimed that they are used no more often, or misleadingly, than written press releases are used by the print media.

A recent scandal in Britain involved network use of a video news release produced by the group Greenpeace that some considered misleading. But of course for every video news release, or VNR as they are called in the trade, that comes from an environmental group there are hundreds that come from businesses or government organizations. Though a keen eye can usually spot a VNR (hint: the subject matter wouldn't otherwise be news, and it usually involves experts and locales far from the station that airs it) most viewers probably believe that today’s story on cell-phone safety or miracle bras is just another product of the news program's producers – and hence, implicitly backed by the news people’s public commitment to objective journalism. The truth, however, is different.

It is fair to say that the wholesale use of others' work is a major part of modern journalism. But news officials are quick to distinguish that from plagiarism. In a mini-scandal at the San Diego Tribune, a reporter's story was cancelled when editors noticed that it looked very much like a story that had already appeared elsewhere. At first, presumably, it was thought that the story had been taken from the other publication. Then it turned out that both stories were simply near-verbatim versions of a press release. According to the Tribune's deputy editor, that wasn't plagiarism. "If you look up the definition of plagiarism, it is the unauthorized use of someone's material. When someone sends you a press packet, you're entitled to use everything in there."

Certainly this statement seems to capture the attitude of many in the journalistic professions. One public-relations handbook explains it this way:

Most reporters aren’t scoop-hungry investigators. They’re wage earners who want to please their editors with as little effort as possible, and they’re happy to let you provide them with ideas and facts for publishable stories. That is why most publicity is positive for people and their businesses.

You’re still not convinced? Go to the library and glance through a few days’ issues of several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and some local papers. You’ll discover that the same stories appear over and over again. That’s because they were initiated by the companies being covered, not by an eager young reporter looking for a scoop.

An experiment by a group of journalism students at the University of Tennessee demonstrates just how willing reporters can be to accept facts and story ideas that involve little work. The students concocted a fictitious press release from a group opposing "political correctness" and mailed it to a number of newspapers. Most did not run it, but quite a few did -- and none checked the details one way or another. One newspaper even embellished the story with additional details that were not included in the original press release. When word of the experiment got out, journalists were predictably outraged, with one even saying that it violated the bond of trust (!) between journalists and public-relations professionals. A more likely explanation for the outrage is that the experiment uncovered a pattern of shoddy work that its practitioners would have preferred to keep unexposed. Not plagiarism, perhaps, but something that in many ways is worse.

Every successful system attracts parasites. The blogosphere is a successful system. That doesn't excuse bad conduct, of course. But I hope that nobody will try to pretend that this sort of thing is new or unusual, even if the setting is.

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4 mar 2005