Are journalists unethical for republishing press releases without attribution?

Proper attribution is the bread and butter for anyone using AP style or writing news articles. Because of the increasing workload that many journalists are burdened with they often look to public relations practitioners for story ideas and press releases to help alleviate this burden while making their personal deadlines. Having said this, is it okay for journalists to simply cut and paste press releases without it being considered plagiarism?

A journalist working for the Kansas City Star was fired[1] because editors had discovered that he was lifting information from press releases without proper attribution. The journalist in question was quoted[2] as saying 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.”

One of the main points of PR practitioners sending pitch emails or press releases to journalists is to catch media attention, either through republishing the press release or having a journalist follow up to craft a story. PRSA “views the issuance of a news release as giving implicit consent to re-use and publish the news release’s content. Certain exceptions would apply; attribution is recommended, for example, when a direct quote is re-used, or facts and figures are cited,” according to[3] Gerard Corbett, APR, PRSA fellow.

As a journalist I will often look through press releases to gather information for the weekly news briefs that I write every week. I won’t simply cut and paste 100 words worth of content, but will rather go through the sometimes daunting process of fact checking, gathering information from different sources and reword/synthesize information. By the end of this process my news brief is at least somewhat different from the original press release I was sent, and any quotes pulled from the press release are attributed to the press release.

If I intend on writing a longer article I will often use press releases as a good starting point to gather more information and decide on what questions to follow up on with the PR spokesperson who initially sent the press release. It’s quite lazy to simply repost or cut and paste a press release as is. Under the journalism code of ethics, journalists have an obligation to the truth as well as to serve the public interest. These ethics are somewhat compromised by lazy reporting and publishing content “as is.”

The crafting of a press release goes through the rigorous process[4] of several revisions and approval from the heads of the company a PR practitioner represents. While pulling content directly from a press release can help aid in accuracy that information is most likely biased and is never written from an objective standpoint. If a journalist simply republishes as press release with the only change being the author of the piece, it also goes against the ethic of objectivity.

At the end of the day journalists should use press releases as a starting point for research or the basis of a potential article. Cutting and pasting content is lazy and can potentially violate several ethical standpoints in the journalism code of ethics. If content is pulled from a press release, it should at the very least be properly attributed as being pulled from the press release.

Do you think it’s unethical for journalists to republish press releases or pull content without proper attribution? As a PR practitioner, would you be fine with your press release being republished without attribution? Should journalists perform due diligence and only use press releases as a general starting point for an article? Does the ethical code for both professions need to be updated to include permission to republish content and would this revision conflict with the journalism code of ethics as it stands?  Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments section below!


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