behind the news

Press Release Journalism

April 18, 2005

In the past few months, there have been a number of headlines reminding us that the line between news and PR is blurrier than we’d like to think. Karen Ryan and others have become infamous for offering up propaganda masquerading as legitimate journalism. They have helped people realize that cable TV’s carnival barkers and talk radio’s “entertainers” aren’t the only players in the ongoing war on reportorial authority.

But there’s another side to this tarnished coin; these high-profile transgressions don’t exist in a vacuum. Consider a piece that came over the Associated Press wire today, “Fed Unveils Financial Education Web Site.” It’s basically a rewrite of a press release — one you can find on the Federal Reserve’s Web site, if you’re curious. The press release trumpets “a teacher resource search engine,” as does the story; both discuss how the personal finance section of the site helps “people make informed decisions.” Other sections of the story are clearly just rewritten passages from the press release; in the former, for example, you’re told you can learn about “such topics as consumer banking, buying a home and getting a mortgage, interest rates, loans and credit,” while the latter discusses “topics such as consumer banking, consumer protection, homes and mortgages, interest rates, loans, and credit.”

Still, it’s tough to really go after AP reporter Martin Crutsinger for this. An editor, or the reporter, decided that a press release was newsworthy, and so the story had to be written. There was no one to call for a bit of equivalence, false or otherwise, so there wasn’t much to work with besides the canned quotes and description from the Fed itself. Crutsinger presumably hastily cranked out an imitation of the press release, as is his occasional duty as an AP reporter, and then moved onto the next topic. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of reporters do the same every day.

And that’s a problem. For what, really, is the point of just rewriting a press release? If you’re just regurgitating PR, you might as well just send the press release itself over the wire, or print it in the newspaper — isn’t that ultimately more honest? (Although, admittedly, probably not that good for circulation.) Reshaping a press release into story form without adding any real context, pertinent information, or countervailing opinion isn’t journalism, appearances notwithstanding. It’s actually not all that different from what a Karen Ryan does — packaging PR so as it give it the imprimatur of editorial legitimacy.

–Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.