In the summer of 2011, the subject of press release plagiarism became the center of a journalism ethics debate as Kansas City Star reporter Steve Penn was fired for repeated instances of using press release content without citation.
A year later, just after the Jonah Lehrer scandal broke, Penn sued his former employer for defamation saying that using press releases in such a manner was not plagiarism, but rather, a common practice.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge in 2016. The judge found that the allegedly defamatory statements were true and made without actual malice.
However, this doesn’t mean that Penn didn’t have his defenders. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), wrote a post defending Penn and saying that, in their view, copying and pasting from press releases without attribution was acceptable because “PRSA views the issuance of a news release as giving implicit consent to re-use and publish the news release’s content.”
That said, the PRSA did add, “Attribution is recommended, for example, when a direct quote is re-used, or facts and figures are cited.”
But recommended does not equal required and PR firms are, in general, very happy to have reporters use their press releases verbatim with or without attribution.
However, to say that such approval makes press release plagiarism OK ignores a fundamental part of why plagiarism is wrong. Sure, the plagiarized may approve of the use, but that doesn’t address the disservice that plagiarism does to the audience.
It’s that issue that makes press release plagiarism a journalistic sin and a practice to be avoided.
The Two Victims of Plagiarism
When it comes to plagiarism, many people look at it solely through the prism of the plagiarized party being wronged and the plagiarist being a “thief” of their work. To that end, if a person offers up their work to be plagiarized, plagiarism appears to be a victimless crime.
However, the plagiarized party is not the only victim. Plagiarism is, at its most fundamental level, is a lie. It’s a person saying that they wrote or created something that they did not. That lie, however, isn’t told to the plagiarized party, but to the audience.
This lie can have many impacts on the audience. It can cause the audience to think more highly of the author if the work is high quality and plagiarism can give more weight and trust in the writing if the author is well-respected.
The latter is the bigger problem for journalists. Journalists, especially at major publications, have a name and status that carries weight. They are meant to be an impartial source that works to represent the facts of a story as accurately as possible, not simply a mouthpiece for the subject of the story.
People inherently mistrust press releases and for good reason. Though most PR professionals are honest and do ethical work, they are definitely trying to present their employers in the most favorable light possible. In short, they are an inherently biased source.
Journalists, however, are supposed to try and divorce themselves of such bias. However, by copying from press releases without proper attribution, they’re not only presenting the words of someone else as their own, but you are not indicating that those words are from the subject of the story and may have a large issue with bias.
In short, by presenting press release text as your own, they are essentially converting a journalistic piece into a marketing one and not alerting the audience to the change.
However, others will quickly point out that press releases are not the only sources that journalists copy from and that other sources are far less controversial.
Wire Services and Audience Expectation
Writing in a newspaper or other publication is very much a collaborative process. Though one journalist usually gets the byline, the story likely has multiple hands in it including an editor, which can make significant changes to a story, and headline writer, whose work frames the entire piece and is going to be the most-read part of the story.
Things get even more complicated when we start delving into wire services such as the Associated Press (AP), Reuters and the Agence France-Presse (AFP). These services produce content for newspapers and other publications to use. Often the articles are reprinted wholesale with attribution, but portions of the work also sometimes appear in articles without attribution, including bylined stories.
This, along with the use of basic information from previous articles, is generally considered acceptable to use by newspapers and publications. In all of these cases, a reporter is putting forth the words of another under their byline, but it’s not widely considered plagiarism, at least not to the extent of firing or disciplining.
The reason for this comes down to a simple issue: Audience expectation
Audience expectation is a thorny issue because it can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict or know what an audience believes about the creation of a work. Reasonable people may have very different expectations about a work when they pick it up.
Still, over time, some norms have formed. For example, we accept that a politician probably didn’t write the speech they are giving. Likewise, when a non-literary celebrity releases a book, we accept that it was probably ghostwritten.
At the extreme other side of the spectrum, students who submit assignments are expected to have fully written them and ghostwriting, such as an essay miil, is not just unacceptable, but a violation of academic integrity.
Journalists exist more to the latter end of the spectrum. While they may not be expected to have written every word, they are supposed to be relatively unbiased sources for factual information. In short, they’re accountable for every word.
The use of wire services and editors doesn’t really change that. Wire service articles are written by other journalists who are, hopefully, taking equal care to avoid printing false information or presenting a biased viewpoint. The same is true for other editors and reporters at the paper that may have their words included.
Press releases, however, don’t have that promise. They are written for a purpose, to make the subject look as good as possible. Using a wire service report in an article may introduce outside words, but it doesn’t introduce a bias. Using a press release without proper citation does and that is a big part of why it is a much bigger problem.
In the end, all of it comes down to a very simple question: What is the point of a journalist anyway?
What’s a Journalist For?
This leads us to a simple but loaded question: What’s the point of a journalist anyway?
According to the American Press Institute (API), the purpose of journalism, and thus journalists, is as follows:
“To provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”
The API also refers to journalists as “committed observers”, people who are part of the community but often must stand apart from it to view things from a different perspective.
In short, it comes down to informing the public from as neutral of a stance as humanly possible and providing factual information.
If simply parroting content from a press release is acceptable, what benefit is a reporter providing over simply reading the press release? Not only are they not providing any new information or insight, but they are taking away information, namely the source of the reporting.
Basically, if the goal of a journalist is to inform readers, plagiarizing from a press release does the exact opposite.
Because of this press release plagiarism cannot be acceptable so long as journalists have an obligation to inform. While the use of wire services is less than ideal (and I certainly support more clear citation of such uses), it doesn’t introduce a bias question nor give the subject of an article the chance to report on itself.
Press releases may be made available for the purpose of unattributed copying, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to do so.
I recognize that my views may be naive to a degree. The idea of the impartial journalist seems quaint in this era of heavily opinionated news. Furthermore, as newsrooms shrink and reporters are constantly pressured to do more with less, quality of reporting is bound to suffer as shortcuts become necessary.
But there’s still a serious conversation to be had about what function journalists provide in our society? If the best journalists can do is copy/paste liberally from press releases, is there a point to journalism?
To be clear, press releases are very useful and can be a great starting point for an article. They’re especially useful for getting relevant quotes from a subject when getting in touch with them directly may be impractical.
However, the meat of a story must always be the reporter’s own work and research and press release content must always be clearly marked as such. Anything less reduces the reporter to just a marketer and does the audience a tremendous disservice.