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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.

UPDATE: A confession:

It is far easier to repackage (or sometimes quote verbatim) what someone else is saying, rather than doing the reporting yourself. I fess up to being guilty of this when I interned with a couple airline magazines a few years ago. They basically handed me a bunch of press releases, asked me to hit the Internet, make a couple phone calls, and then craft an article from it.

Trudy Schuett, meanwhile, has thoughts on the subversive potential of republishing press releases while labeling them as such.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader John Galvin defends the PR industry in a lengthy missive. Click "read more" to read it. I don't deny that PR is valuable, actually. My point was simply that journalists rely a lot more heavily on PR than they admit, and that pointing a finger at bloggers in this case without acknowledging that fact (in a "see, you can't trust bloggers because they lack our journalistic standards" fashion) would be deeply unfair, even dishonest.

Galvin writes:

Your post on “PR and Blogger Ethics” unfortunately shows a profound misunderstanding of the very important role of Public Relations in our society and economy.

I am part owner of a very small Public Relations/Marketing firm. While my role is strictly graphics and other computer related matters, I’m certainly aware of the PR end. Without Public Relations, you simply would be unaware of many things, many very beneficial.

I’ll give you some examples that you can personally relate to.

Your wife has a serious heart condition and, I believe, had device implanted in her. How do you think the cardiologists heard about that device? Most likely they read about it in a medical journal. In some cases they might have read about it in a newspaper or magazine, or even saw a piece about it on television news.

In all of the above cases the stories about the device were the result of Public Relations. The media outlet received a press kit from a PR firm. That kit contained a press release, and a lot of other vital information about the device. A company spokesman, and possibly several doctors, was made available for interview through the PR firm. TV footage of the spokesman and or doctors might have been made available. Do you think that your local Knoxville newspapers and television stations have the resources to send a reporter, photographer, camera crew, etc across the country to cover this? The medical journals that covered this have even fewer resources.

Are you glad that your wife’s doctors heard about that device? What might have happened if they’d never heard of the device? Yes the company made a sale. More importantly, a life may have been saved.

Another example is your recent purchase of a hybrid auto. Once again, media outlets throughout the country were made aware of the introduction of that car through PR. The auto magazines, the auto writers for general interest news media, the producers at television news outlets, and others all received Press Kits before the car was introduced. Photos of the auto and the power plant were made available to the press. TV footage of the car moving, and footage of the engine compartment were also made available. Test drives were made available. You most likely heard about the car through news coverage. You might have researched it by reading various auto columns online. The reporter got a lot of that info via the PR push. (A number of years ago you read about VW’s introduction of the New Beetle. That was our firm at work. Interestingly, that car was only introduced as a concept car. The interest generated by the press coverage convinced VW to put the thing into production.)

When you read/sea the coverage of major hurricanes approaching a coast, It’s not uncommon to read/sea that outfits like Home Depot and Loewes are prepostioning lumber products for quick delivery to the effected area. Residents of the area will know that materials will be coming. That’s the result of PR by Home Depot and Lowes.

Once again, your local news outlets, and even national news outlets don’t have the resources to provide all this. You seem to be pleased with your auto. Without a very expensive PR push by Toyota, your odds of hearing about that car and being able to research it online by reading reviewer’s columns would have been greatly diminished.

The simple fact is that no news outlets have the ability to fully cover many things, or even find out about them. The cost is beyond comprehension. PR helps them provide coverage. The problem of proper coverage becomes more acute, the further you get from metropolitan areas. Many small towns have a weekly paper with only a few employees. They have to rely on PR firms for material.

Thank you
John Galvin
Jane Bartnett Communications

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