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).
The hot-sex press release was written by Lee J. Siegel, who joined the University of Utah’s public relations office eight years ago after a long science journalism career with The Associated Press and Salt Lake Tribune. Siegel said this week in a telephone interview that he, too, is concerned that “some news services just rewrite the press releases without interviewing anyone and don’t make clear the story is from a news release.” He’s seen the most egregious examples online: “Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can put news on a Web site these days, so it is not surprising to see news standards going down the tube.”
Siegel also said that the case of the recent Salt Lake Tribune story about the dinosaur tracks, which used a quote from the press release he wrote, was unfortunate because the rest of the story was well done and included interviews with other scientists. “Even an otherwise talented reporter slides down the slippery slope now and then,” said Siegel.
But the slope seems to be getting more slippery, especially on the already treacherous terrain of medical and health reporting, which the public increasingly relies upon for personal health decisions. Craig Stolz, a former Washington Post health editor who appeared on the NASW science-writing panel with Petit, has seen a lot of questionable reporting in this area while working for Health News Review, a foundation-supported Web site that “grades” health reporting from major print and television outlets. At the panel, he cited the example of a Los Angeles Times article about a journal study of a new drug for aggressive prostate cancer. Health News Review concluded that the article had overstated how soon the drug would become “widely available” based on a quote from the lead researcher, found in the press release, whose work is supported by the drug’s maker. It also criticized the Times for using two quotes from a patient that were identical to those in the press release: “It most certainly should not have taken quotes from a patient directly from a press release. That is inexcusable.”
“The problem is worsening,” agreed Paul Costello, who heads the Stanford University School of Medicine communications and public affairs office. He said that the “shift to new media Web site traffic” is putting added pressure on reporters, leading some to cut corners in the name of more copy, “often writing right off press releases, even at the good papers.”
“By no means should press releases be passed off as news stories. A news release can be a parochial statement by an institution that does not necessarily have critical viewpoints,” said Meredith, who is currently finishing a book about “Explaining Research.” He also noted that public-affairs offices vary greatly in their approaches. Some are largely “sales reps that see their jobs as selling the institution as a commodity.” Others, fortunately, hire “good public information science journalists who recognize the importance of credibility and see their role as presenting the science in as accurate and precise a way as they can.”
“The idea that reporters won’t quote from press releases has evaporated from the business,” lamented Petit. He added that “there is still excellent reporting from the usual suspects like the AP and The New York Times,” and that prize-winning series—the “glamour stories of journalism”—are still around. But “what has changed the most are the meat-and-potatoes daily stories. Those are the stories the public sees.”