Science Reporting by Press Release

An old problem grows worse in the digital age

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).

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.”

Fortunately, thanks to a growing number of science press criticism Web sites and blogs, science journalism is itself coming under the microscope.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-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.