Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The ADN's Press-Release Journalism - Kulis Airport Story

[Update, July 7: Followup post here]

Yesterday I got an email from the Department of Transportation.   Somehow I got on their email list and I decided to keep it to see how many of their press releases get picked up and published and how  various media handle them. Do the reporters identify the stories as a press release or publish it as 'news.'

Today we get a good example of Press Release Journalism.  Today on page A-4 the Anchorage Daily News has essentially published the press release with just minor cosmetic changes.

The by-line is Anchorage Daily News/

It starts off like a story written by a reporter.  It's not until the third paragraph (of five) that it says, 'according to the Department of Transportation.'  It's not until the fourth paragraph that it mentions a Department of Transportation statement.  As though everything before that had been gathered and written by a reporter.  Not all the press release is there. A few words have been changed or omitted, but it's basically the DOT's press release almost verbatim.

Here's an example.  I've copied the original sentence from the press release and then used strikeout and brackets to show the ADN changes.
Northern Aviation Services, a division of NAC, has reconfigured the building that once served as the mess hall and kitchen, transforming it into a first class charter terminal for the use of their client, Shell Alaska Exploration [by Shell's employees and contractors.]" 
Essentially, the whole piece is from the DOT press release with most of the language intact.   The byline should read "Department of Transportation" not "Anchorage Daily News."  Although they take paragraphs (actually almost everything) verbatim, there are no quotation marks.  You can see the ADN piece here and the original press release here.

If the ADN wants to publish a press release, that's their business.  But they owe it to their readers to identify it as such.  They shouldn't disguise it as news. 

If they treat it as news, they need to clearly identify what came from the press release and what value the reporter has added. They should relate the story to other stories.  They should raise questions about how this fits into the bigger picture of Anchorage development. 

Essentially DOT announced that Northern Aviation Services (a division of Norther Air Cargo) has remodeled the old mess hall at  Kulis Air National Guard Base (127 acres total) into
"a first class charter terminal for the use of their client, Shell Alaska Exploration. The facility will be supporting transportation of Shell’s employees and contractors during the summer offshore exploration season. NAC has also chartered a Boeing 737-400 passenger aircraft from Miami Air which will be based at Kulis as well."
They also mention that there is still space to lease:
Approximately 230,000 square feet of building space remains available for lease. This includes three C130 hangars, four office buildings, and a large warehouse. Existing improvements also include approximately 15 acres of aircraft parking apron and three acres of vehicle parking lots. 

I couldn't help wondering about the link between the proposed land swap the ADN reported in June where the airport wanted to take land from one of Anchorage's most loved parks - the coastal trail - and swap it for other land.  The move caused widespread protests.

To some people, natural, untouched land that isn't generating income, is wasted land.  The value of the land as watershed, wildlife habitat, noise buffer, aid to mental health, or recreation space,  isn't factored.  For more depth on this idea see an older post on E.O. Wilson's The Future of Life.  or this one on "What makes an Empty Lot?"

The press release says they have 18 acres in the old Kulis land for parking - 15 for planes, three for cars.  The June ADN article doesn't say how many acres would be in the swap.  An Anchorage Press article on the swap doesn't either. (At least searching for 'acre' didn't locate the information.)  But the City Planning Department's West Anchorage District Plan 2011 Chapter 4.3 gives us some numbers:
Ultimately, the Assembly developed and approved a compromise land exchange in 1994 similar to the ballot initiative. Under the exchange, the school district received 40 acres of state land at the southwest corner of Caravelle Drive and Raspberry Road, the airport received 130 acres of HLB land west of its then existing boundary and 191 acres of HLB land were transferred to the Parks and Recreation Department. The land transaction received final approval in 1995, which formally dedicated Point Woronzof Park.
I don't understand how this all fits together.  But I couldn't help but wonder how this relates to the recently reported airport land swap proposal.   I'm not sure, but I think it is worth raising the question. Let's talk about it.  Maybe others do know.  At the very least we need to find out.  The obligation isn't for the journalist to know everything before writing, but to raise questions, and be clear about what is known and what isn't.

I do know that there is a lot of pressure on the city by developers to make as much land available to them with as little regulation as possible. See the current fight over the Municipality's planning document Title 21.   There is also concerted effort by the State Department of Transportation - despite overwhelming community opposition - to push what was Bragaw Road and is now Elmore Road through the greenbelt on the land of the University.  

Some might say that newspapers have been publishing press releases as news items forever.  I don't know if that's true.  It's only when you see the original press release that you see how blatant it is.  Perhaps the generic ADN by-line gives it away.  There is no reporter's name.

I realize the newspaper industry is suffering hard times and they need easy stories.  But give the byline to the source - in this case the Department of Transportation, the department that owns the airport and has a vested interest in its development.  While a state entity should have the public interest in mind, often they are staffed by people whose values are shared with only some of the public.  The readers shouldn't be tricked into thinking this was a news story.


  1. Excellent post and thoughts, Steve. I suppose there has always been a certain amount of lifting materials from press releases without attribution. But it seems to be getting far, far worse since 2008. Not just at the ADN.

  2. I worked at a newspaper that often resorted to this type of “news". “According to” is an inferior and misleading attribution. One might also consider the mention of "more space available” in this article as a free ad. There often is a blurring of news versus advertising in “press releases” and a serious editor would spend time extracting the newsworthy aspect. It appears the ADN slipped up and it is possible they were settling for "easy news" during the holiday week.

  3. Then technically in this instance would not the ADN be guilty of plagiarism, one of the most serious ethics violations in journalism?

  4. I'm glad you ask as many questions as you do Steve!
    I'm not familiar with the local issues you reference here in relation to this "story" but I am familiar with the problems associated with press releases passing as news and they are many.
    I would rather see papers dedicate a section to Press Releases specifically than what happens now with far too many appearing as news stories.
    If they need to fill space, do it with appropriate headings.
    Three years ago Area M fishermen "stood down" for the beginning of their sockeye season. Too many of the "reports" about this were rehashes of their own press release about the how and why and accompanied by the assertion that scientific evidence showed they were not affecting the A-Y-K chum subsistence fishery- the latter assertion was total nonsense.
    The lack of follow-up and contextual reporting the last 2 years didn't do any favors for anyone but it does appear Area M fishermen are being more honest this year.
    Their press release this year finally takes into account the 3 decades old arguments associated with the week(s) the chum-sockeye ratio is high and references the landmark fish genetics study due for release to the public this summer.
    I'm not seeing this year's press release being held up as news though and wonder what's up with that. Did someone(s) finally see the complexities and politics involved and decide it was too obviously a press release?
    Alaska Pi

  5. Lawsuit filed recently.

    "A year ago, The Kansas City Star fired metro columnist Steve Penn after editors discovered he had submitted more than a dozen columns that were nearly verbatim copies of press releases. Now, Penn is suing McClatchy Newspapers Inc., the Star's owner, for defamation. He's seeking $25,000 and punitive damages.

    Penn, who joined the Star in 1980 and had been a columnist for a decade, claims that copying press releases was commonplace at the paper and throughout the field of journalism. His suit says part of his training at the paper even included using press releases and not attributing them to their source. "

    Plaintiff's filing linked at above story.

  6. Thanks for all your kind and thoughtful comments. Phil, always appreciate your support. Anon1, you offer the model of newsrooms I'd like to believe, but Anon2's reference suggests that at McClatchy at least, this practice has been tolerated for a long time. At least in this case no human name was attached to the story.
    Jamie, your sly question forced me to think a bit. cites (but doesn't link to) Merriam Webster:
    According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to "plagiarize" means

    "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
    to use (another's production) without crediting the source
    to commit literary theft
    to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

    In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward."

    The ADN isn't guilty of stealing, because the airport PR folks were giving this away and I'm sure are more than happy if it looks like a news story instead of press release.

    But the ADN is guilty of the passing it off as one's own or presenting existing material as new and original. The two 'according to' phrases weren't enough attribution in my mind, and didn't make it clear it was mostly verbatim from a press release.


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