A dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories. But recent newsroom cutbacks and increased pressure to churn out online news have given publicity operations even greater prominence in science coverage.

“What is distressing to me is that the number of science reporters and the variety of reporting is going down. What does come out is more and more the direct product of PR shops,” said Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and media critic, in an interview. Petit has been running MIT’s online Knight Science Journalism Tracker since 2006, where he has posted more than 4,000 critiques involving approximately 20,000 articles. He is concerned that science news “spoon-fed” directly to the media through well-written press releases and handouts has “become a powerful subversive tool eroding the chance that reporters will craft their own stories.” In some cases the line between news story and press release has become so blurred that reporters are using direct quotes from press releases in their stories without acknowledging the source.

This week, Petit criticized a Salt Lake Tribune article for doing just that. In an article about skepticism surrounding the discovery of alleged dinosaur tracks in Arizona, the reporter had lifted one scientist’s quote verbatim from a University of Utah press release as if it had come from an interview. “This quote is not id’d as, but is, provided by the press release,” Petit wrote in his critique. “If a reporter doesn’t hear it with his or her own ears, or is merely confirming what somebody else reported first, a better practice is to say so.”

Increasingly, however, institutional news offices from universities, government research agencies, and corporations are putting out large press packages that provide well-written press releases, graphics, and even video in a form that can be used directly by news outlets that are hungry for stories but lack the resources, time, and/or experience to do more thorough reporting.

“The trend is that more and more media use press releases not just as fodder but as the source of whole explanatory segments and quotes in their stories,” said Dennis Meredith, the former head of Duke University’s science press office. He, too, has seen a number of reporters lift quotes directly from press releases and plug them into stories without attribution, a practice he called “absolutely unethical.”

Ron Winslow, a senior health reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, said he uses press releases as a “way to judge the news value” of a story and decide whether to pursue it. He thought it permissible “to use a quote from a press release if you’re short on time and can’t reach someone.” In that case, he stressed that it was imperative to attribute the quote to an institutional statement or release, not pass it off as independent reporting.

Part of the problem is that the balance of power has shifted. Institutional publicity operations are becoming more sophisticated at the same time that newsrooms are decimating the ranks of fulltime specialty science staff. Many science reporters are left scrambling to find work as freelance or public-information writers.

“Press releases now have all of the features of a full-blown story,” said Petit, who spent more than thirty years as a science reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and U.S. News & World Report before moving to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. In the past, releases were often sent out in the form of tip sheets or backgrounders for reporters to follow-up on. That kind of press release still exists — Petit cited an example of one in a post yesterday about preliminary research using brain stimulation to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — but now, many press officers are practically competing with journalists by turning out tempting releases that are a shade away from the finished product.

In a recent media panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, Petit cited instances in which clever press releases have propelled ho-hum science stories into must-read stories. One example was another University of Utah press release titled “Living fossils have hot sex,” about the mating habits of primitive plants called cycads that most people would not find all that sexy. Petit noted how closely many of the media outlets, particularly those from overseas, came to copying the press release language (and one another) instead of creating their own original headlines: “Primitive plants have hot, stinky sex,” reported Reuters; “Ancient plant has hot, stinky sex,” wrote New Scientist; “Plants enjoy hot, smelly sex in the tropics,” announced ABC (Australia).

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.