Be honest: Even if facts are just ripped from a press release, journalists must cite the source

The plagiarism rule I learned in the newsroom 45 years ago is this: Don’t steal. It has a corollary: Never deceive readers.

Earlier this month, the Kansas City Star fired columnist Steve Penn “for using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own work.” Penn, at least a dozen times, the paper says, took material from press releases and did not tell the readers he did so. The paper was correct to fire Penn; he is suing.

Penn has a defender — Gerard Corbett, chairman and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America. Corbett says it’s okay to take material from a press release (within limits) and use it without attribution. Corbett is wrong, wrong, wrong too.

Here’s part of Corbett’s recent PRSA post on the issue:

Most public relations professionals I know are thrilled to see some or all of their press releases appear in print. After all, those words found their way onto the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. And what better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release? [emphasis added]

(By the way, how much does that last line echo what presidential candidates demand of reporters these days — approval of quotations from campaign officials?)

Corbett acknowledges that “journalists still are facing scrutiny and criticism over the practice” of cutting and pasting from press releases without attribution. But to support his contention that cut-and-paste without acknowledging the source is often permissible, he quotes from Penn’s suit against the Star.

The journalist in question [Penn] doesn’t think so. In a legal complaint filed in response to his firing, he argues that the “widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors … with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished … with no or minimal editing.” [emphasis added]

Penn and Corbett miss the point. Yes, newsrooms often run press releases with little or no editing. That’s a different issue. What is a firing offense is to not tell readers the source of that material. That is deceit, not merely lousy editorial judgment.

We are surrounded these days by mediated deceit. Presidential campaigns have taken remarks by candidates and spliced them deceptively. They have put thoughts into speakers’ mouths that speakers did not intend. Mitt Romney’s campaign has done so. Barack Obama has edited himself deceptively.

Journalism has been fraught with accusations of deceit over the past few decades — Stephen Glass from 1996 to 1998, Jayson Blair in 2003, Lloyd Brown in 2004, Maureen Dowd in 2009, Sari Horwitz in 2011, Johann Hari in 2011, and this summer, NPR intern Ahmad Shafi.

Need more examples?

John Hanchette, a 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner who occupied the professorial office next to mine for a decade, cut through the bullshit about plagiarism in the syllabi for his courses. He allowed me to use his words in mine:

Plagiarism is when you try to pass off someone else’s ideas and words as your own. It comes from the old Latin noun plagiarius, meaning ‘kidnapper.’ You get the idea. Fabrication is simply making something up, like a source or a quote. This includes distortion or fractional truths.

PRSA’s Corbett suggests the line between between theft of words and facts and appropriate unattributed use is fungible:

But is it really necessary to attribute dates and times or other general information contained within a press release, when this information is provided specifically for the purpose of publication? Not really.

Corbett’s post — and quasi-defense of Penn — is thoughtful. But failing to tell readers the source of words or facts is just plain wrong — no matter how small the detail. Honesty with readers requires just three words tacked onto a sentence containing facts or words from a press release — “said the company.”

Don’t steal. Don’t deceive.

Journalism should be a craft based on an honest relationship with readers. Too often it is not. But it should be: Anything less is just … PR.

9 comments on “Be honest: Even if facts are just ripped from a press release, journalists must cite the source

  1. Funny how the “defense of rubberstamping” position conflates the issues of copyright infringement, plagiarism and attribution of sources as a smokescreen. It must suck for them that their only argument relies on intellectual dishonesty.

  2. Heh. From a PR industry perspective, the reporter was perfectly fine. In fact, he was doing what they WANT him to do. It would be bad or the PR agency if they were credited because that would expose the fact that it wasn’t journalism, thereby damaging the cred of the story.

    This, of course, highlights the whole problem with PR and journalism, doesn’t it?

    • To elaborate a little bit. I’ve written plenty of press releases and sent them to plenty of publications. In that role, your DREAM is to see your words running verbatim and unedited. One of the approaches to a release is to write it so that the reporter can craft a story from it, but another is to write the story exactly as you hope it will appear, and the approach you use depends on the pub. If you were to run a quote and tag it with “according to Sam Smith, a PR representative who represents XYZ Corp,” it would actually be a nightmare for the company and the agency.

      Which is why a good reporter ought to do just that… :)

  3. PRSA does not support or encourage plagiarism as Dr. Denny so blatantly alleges. In reality it is quite the opposite.

    It is a fact and by design that public relations professionals draft press releases to be used verbatim by journalists. We encourage attribution but do not consider it an absolute as long as it is employed authentically. And it is not plagiarism when relevant information is copied and pasted into an article. If a journalist is citing a date and time listed in a release, for example, then attribution is not necessary nor should it be considered plagiarism.

    Journalists must make their own ethical decisions on proper citation for pieces they author. Together with their editors, journalists must honestly present to the public – PRSA does not believe any other way.

    Dr. Denny’s blog is dedicated to ethics and honesty and it should be incumbent upon him to characterize our position as we have given it. It is unfortunate that he chose not contact me to clarify my position or respond to his allegations.

    • Thanks for writing, Mr. Corbett. I’d like to comment on this:

      Journalists must make their own ethical decisions on proper citation for pieces they author. Together with their editors, journalists must honestly present to the public – PRSA does not believe any other way.

      I don’t know if this is written down anywhere in PRSA guidelines or ethical codes, but let’s be honest, PRSA damned sure DOES believe any other way. Here’s why. If, later today, America’s newspapers, TV stations and online news/information outlets uniformly adopted a new code requiring specific attribution of PR sources in stories drawing from news releases, pitches, etc., two things would happen:

      1: the PR industry would be out of business

      2: news organizations would be out of business

      The last numbers I saw indicated that upwards of 75% of all stories in the major press were touched in some way by PR. Those numbers may well have climbed, as newsroom staffs have been axed left and right and those numbers are a few years old. And pretty much 0% of those PR touches are attributed. The truth is that what most citizens think of as reporting is usually PR in disguise. I know it and while I understand you can’t acknowledge it publicly, you know it, too.

      Dr. Denny comes at this story as a guy who spent two decades in a newsroom and who has been a journalism professor for the last 16 years or so. I, on the other hand, come at it as a guy who has made his living primarily in corporate communications. So I fully appreciate your perspective.

      However, I’m a bit disappointed that you’d wander in here and chastise Dr. Wilkins as you do in your comment, given the underlying reality of your own organization’s practice. You’re concerned about how we characterize your position. I’m concerned about how you characterize the facts.

  4. I just happen to be up late, and while I’m keenly looking forward to Dr. Denny’s response to you, Mr. Corbett, I would like to add the following:

    “For that reason, PRSA generally disagrees with the stance that the use of a press release without attribution is plagiarism.”

    Indulge me while I attribute these words to you, since they are from your article, linked above.

    Does anyone really need to cite a dictionary definition of plagiarism to make the case clear for you? I think maybe so, so that we may see clearly how you take so narrow a reading of such a definition and spin your way around it.

    From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/plagiarism – an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author

    For your position to hold any water, the operative word in the definition must be the word “and.” If the writer (so-called…what is it when they’re actually just filling in blanks with the words of others?) only uses the work without authorization, but attributes it, it is not plagiarism. If the writer is authorized to use it, but fails to attribute, it is not plagiarism. To beat the dead horse, it is only when authorization does not exist *and* the attribution is absent that plagiarism is committed (at least as defined by this one source).

    Yet, here’s you again, in your own words, from the same article:

    “Under a strict interpretation of the law, it therefore would seem that news organizations should handle press releases like any other copyrighted content and not freely reproduce or borrow content without permission or a broad waiver to that affect.

    In reality, however, a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement on a news release would run counter to the news release’s stated purpose and intent for use by journalists.”

    Basically, it would be as foolish for a PR firm to allege copyright violation in such instances as it would be for a ventriloquist to upset at his or her dummy. Nevertheless, without that explicit license or release of the release into the public domain, authorization is not granted other than by bizarre, self-serving custom riddled with conflict of interest. Ergo, both requirements of the definition are indeed met. Just because you refuse to exercise your right to claim infringement doesn’t mean the right wasn’t infringed.

    I understand that the mission of PR is utterly different than that of journalism, and so, within your own field, all is well and good. But as a consumer of journalism I can tell you with no reservations that such a practice is merely unpaid advertisement and should be marked clearly as such. At best, it’s just lazy advocacy and properly belongs under op-ed. As a reader, I should be made explicitly aware of that, that just as much as I should know whether my doctor just got back from a luxury resort in the Caribbean sponsored by XYZPharm when writing me a script for an XYZPharm product. Oh, wait…even the medical industry finally got wise to how screwed up that is. Sadly, our political institutions haven’t yet caught up.

    How sad that even the much-maligned Wikipedia holds itself to a higher standard than does the plagiarist Steve Penn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Plagiarism

  5. Mr. Corbett and I are unlikely to find common ground for agreement.

    He represents an industry whose principal task is to create a positive perception for a client or repair a negative perception. I represent a craft that seeks to determine the validity of a perception.

    I’m hard pressed to determine at what points in my post I “blatantly allege” that the PRSA supports or condones plagiarism. I relied on Mr. Corbett’s own words to determine the PRSA’s position:

    But is it really necessary to attribute dates and times or other general information contained within a press release, when this information is provided specifically for the purpose of publication? Not really.

    Frank and Sam have covered the ground well; I feel no need to be redundant. I appreciate Mr. Corbett’s response to the post. He is welcome to return here and comment as often as he wishes. We appreciate a good debate on an issue.

    But charging that my post makes “allegations” that the PRSA supports plagiarism is, I fear, an example of either trying to create a positive perception of the speaker or to repair a negative perception.

  6. Mr. Corbett seems to be hoping for, and advocating, the further blurring of the line between PR and Journalism. Even if he is not going so far as to produce fake news (like the scandals revealed a few years ago: http://www.prwatch.org/fakenews/execsummary/), encouraging the use of unattributed source material is questionable at best and patently unethical at worst. If you asked most of us in education about whether that practice would be plagiarism, the answer would probably be a resounding “YES.”

    In fact, it strikes me a possibly a good academic exercise to have students read Mr. Corbett’s piece and discuss it.

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