Press Release by Science Reporting

An information officer’s defense of honest, helpful PR

Cris Russell’s recent lament in CJR about reporters plugging material from press releases directly into their copy seems anything but the admission of a “dirty little secret,” as she calls it. Reporters have been doing this routinely since I left the newsroom, and the fact that the public may not have been conscious of it doesn’t change the fact that it amounted to lazy journalism.

Cris’s excellent piece, however, seems to focus on two arguments: Journalists routinely are lifting quotes—if not other material—from news releases, without stating that they’re doing so. And some public affairs operations are now producing releases that, for all intents and purposes, are functioning as real science journalism.

As chief science writer at Ohio State University and one of those public affairs officers who’s been reporting on scientific research and offering it to reporters for much longer than three decades, I’ve watched that happen to my copy hundreds of times. And aside from an internal chuckle on my part, it doesn’t bother me a bit. Let me explain why.

First, my philosophy in producing stories is, and always will be, to tell them journalistically, following the same guidelines that I learned in my years as a reporter for Alabama’s Birmingham News, and to explain the story as plainly and honestly as possible. If I’ve taken the pains to craft a story as carefully and as accurately as I would have when I was in the newsroom, then I know that the reporter receiving it has much better material as a starting point for his or her take on the story. In the end, that ensures a higher quality of information for the reader.

Many journalists see all PR as the same when, in reality, there is a lot of variation, and press officers’ perceptions of their roles and responsibilities differ widely. While corporate types may be there largely to “sell soap” and support the bottom line, science public affairs officers are usually bent more towards explaining the research. Those at the top research universities, for example, know that overselling discoveries or spinning content risks their credibility and any hope of reporters trusting them in the future.

As to the quotes I’ve included in the press releases I’ve done, they’re all direct statements by the sources, approved by the sources, and aren’t vetted by anyone else. No administrator okays them, nor do PR gurus spin them in any direction. So the quotes are there specifically, as Ron Winslow said in Cris’s essay, to help reporters decide whether or not to chase the piece. They’re there to be used, with or without attribution to a release—just get the quotes right, that’s all I ask.

Also, in most cases, the research in question is work I’ve followed for years, giving me the same kind of knowledge advantage that a beat reporter has over a general assignment reporter in the newsroom. Does anyone really believe that a reporter’s blind call from even the most prestigious news media will yield the kind of information that comes from a reporting relationship that’s grown over years? I don’t think so. The last decade or so has seen top science PIOs shift their prime goal from coverage to credibility, since they know that the former depends on the latter.

In her piece, Cris cited a panel at the recent National Association of Science Writers’ annual meeting where a group of media critics discussed the use of press releases. At a session on science writing immediately following that one, a colleague and I offered case studies of when reporters missed the mark in trying to cover stories about major controversies in research. We explained the events in each case and outlined details of how institutions deal with such episodes.

In the end, we pointed out that none of the reporters covering any of the events took the time to understand what was actually happening. Because of that, they never asked the right questions—questions that, in nearly all cases, we were hoping they would ask. And because they did not ask the right questions, they never got the accurate information needed to raise their stories beyond the “he-says, she-says” approach.

Reporters in the crowd argued that we, public information officers, should have volunteered the information, or at least have told them what they should be asking for. Our response: Reporters need to understand a story enough to know what questions to ask. But that only brought the comment that I was “slimy” for “withholding” information.

You can’t “withhold” something that isn’t asked for. The reporters in these cases were just plain lazy. Which brings us to the point that some public affairs operations are doing good science journalism—not just flacking PR.

The Internet has evened out the playing field when it comes to reporting on science and research. While, sadly, some communications offices still push institutional PR and “messaging,” many do not and that’s a good thing, not something for journalists to fear. In essence, they’re filling the gaps left by staff journalists.

Science public affairs officers who report on research honestly and competently are a resource for reporters, and in many cases function as peers. They are the ones who are trusted by journalists, and the public is the beneficiary of the work of both.

The pressures of shrinking newsrooms, dwindling resources and increased workloads aren’t going to go away. And readers, rarely sympathetic to the journalists’ plight, will simply turn elsewhere for their information. It’s time to stop worrying about who’s doing the best science reporting and simply focus on doing more of it.

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Earle Holland is assistant vice president for research communications at Ohio State University and a former board member of both the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists.