My July 4 post on a Department of Transportation press release that was printed in the Anchorage Daily News almost verbatim picked up a few comments including one that linked to a blog post about a columnist fired by the Kansas City Star.
"[A]fter 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."Since McClatchy also owns the Anchorage Daily News, this was becoming a bigger story. Actually, I had started to write with questions about how the new airport development in the press release related to the proposed landswap between the airport and the Municipality that would give the airport part of the Coastal Trail. Before posting I saw the press release published as a news item in the ADN, I refocused the post to the issue of handling press releases as news.
But when I learned, through the comment, about the other McClatchy paper firing a columnist over this, it seemed I should contact the ADN and ask them about their policy on this and any comments they might have about the Kansas City Star columnist. I emailed editor Pat Dougherty mentioning the post and the comment with the link to the Kansas City Star firing.
Even though I'd emailed him after 5pm, Dougherty responded in detail within a couple of hours. He pointed out, legitimately, that it would have been nice if I had contacted him before posting.
He wrote that he agreed that
"the attribution in that story should have been higher and more precise. . .
I also agree that all the composition should have been our own, exceptHe also wrote:
for something used in direct quotes.
If we had done that, I don't think the generic bylining would have
been an issue. After all, in choosing to publish it, we are taking
responsibility for it. That's why we would include a byline. "
"Prompted by your column, we discussed this issue among editors hereHe wrote that there are cost factors in using staff time to rewrite and fact check press releases so that they are really ADN created news articles. One option they considered was an online space for press releases:
today and agreed that we would have a specific discussion about
appropriate and inappropriate practices with the reporter involved in
this case, followed by a general written reminder to the staff about
our standards and expectations."
". . .we created a spot on our website called "Bulletin Board." The idea was to
post raw press releases that we thought were of interest to at least
some of our readers but that did not meet the threshold for use of
staff time. The fact is there are a lot of lesser tidbits of news we
get that don't justify journalistic handling. Here's an example: press
release says the road to Wonder Lake is open to private cars. It's
unfortunate that the general public may not get that information from
the newspaper if we can't have a reporter spend the time to say
essentially the same thing, to the same level of depth, in different
words. Now if we did make that effort in that example, you are smart
enough to understand what it really represents. The newspaper story
isn't saying the road to Wonder Lake is open -- we don't know that
because we haven't gone to Denali to check the road. What the
newspaper is saying is that someone who works for the park service
says the road is open. Whether the park service says that in a press
release, a phone call or an email is pretty much a distinction without
Primarily because of tight staffing with summer vacations etc., the
Bulletin Board effort has languished. If I conclude that the benefit
to our readers is worth the effort, I may revive it. It's just one
more small way in which we newspaper people are having to solve
problems today that we could have solved more easily in the past with
more staff or money."
[I couldn't find anything about the Denali road being open to Wonder Lake, but the Park Service did post last week its "Final Vehicle Management Plan for Denali National Park & Preserve." Comment period until July 30.]
I like the Bulletin Board idea. It seems best to just identify items as press releases and print them verbatim. The idea of rewriting them seems a waste of time, since it's the same unevaluated content the organization submitted, just in different words. The key is to let the reader know the source and what you did with it.
As Dougherty went on to discuss the Kansas City Star situation, he elaborated on the problems of working with press releases:
I am skeptical of the claims of the former KC Star person. YouAs a blogger without a journalism background, I'm continuing to learn. I've generally not been good about calling people about stories beforehand. I can see how someone could call the original post 'gotcha' blogging, which isn't my intent. Adding Dougherty's response - that this isn't how the ADN wants their reporters doing things - to the original would have made a better post. Watching ADN reporters - particularly Lisa Demer during the Alaska corruption trials and in Juneau - I know that she's on the phone a lot calling and checking. That's something I need to do more often. While interviews are often used in academic research - my background - in the actual writing, one tends to cite written sources mostly. That's an explanation, not an excuse.
describe him here as a reporter. I thought he was a columnist. [I used the wrong word, Dougherty was right.] The difference between those two jobs matters hugely. The issue of rewriting press releases, or rewriting anything, should never come up with a columnist, whose job it is to write his own opinions or
observations. If he was a columnist and he was re-writing anything, he
ought to be fired. Period. If he was a reporter, the situation could
have been somewhat less black and white. Lots of low-level news
stories start from press releases. Reporters are constantly under
pressure to determine just how much time a given story is worth, and
to spend just that much time and no more. That can put a reporter
close to the line. Every newspaper editor is well aware of that
pressure and the proximity of that line -- but editors expect a
reporter to know better than to cross it.The pressures at the Star,
I'm sure, are not materially different from those at the ADN or, for
that matter, Channel 2, the Anchorage Press or the Alaska Dispatch.
There may have been some corner-cutting by KC reporters, but I don't
believe that was a condoned practice at the newspaper. I guess we'll
have to wait and see how that case turns out.
I also appreciate Dougherty's quick and thorough responses to my emails. Dougherty also sent a Kansas City Star article on the firing of their columnist which adds more information than the original link that Anonymous left in the comment section.
Penn alleged that using press releases without attribution was a common practice at The Star and even was part of his training.That sentence was in both links to the KC Star firing, but the next ones, which raised red flags for me, were new.
“The widespread practice in journalism is to treat such press releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or published, and preferably with no or minimal editing,” the suit alleged. “As such, attribution as to the authorship of such news releases is typically not expected by the author, nor offered by journalists who receive them.”If this were true, the widespread practice would be to deceive the public into thinking press releases from various organizations are actually news stories written by the paper's reporters and columnists. A friend reminded me of the controversy six years ago when television stations played, as news stories, corporate and government made video news releases (VNRs) without attribution. The FCC ruled TV stations playing VNRs "must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material."
Dougherty's discussion on how much time it takes reporters to rewrite press releases also brought to mind last weekend's This American Life episode on Journatic, a company that creates local news stories for newspapers, using outsourced reporters as far away as the Philippines. Readers have no idea that the stories aren't written by local reporters. The piece discusses the economic reasons smaller papers are tempted to buy cheap, outsourced, local stories. Journatic claimed papers got more local coverage that way. But a Journatic reporter said he found he wasn't as careful about fact checking because of the low pay he gets per article and because he's so far away from the towns he's writing about.
I also asked Dougherty if the ADN had its editorial policy publicly available. His response was:
We don't have a written ethics policy. We expect good ethics and goodPresumably, that's why the ADN hires people with degrees in journalism - they learned the skills and the standards in school. They come with the code of ethics already embedded as Henry Mintzberg writes about employees who come to organizations already trained:
judgment. What we have said in writing is that any issue that raises
ethical questions, in which the right course of action is not clear,
should be brought up with editors. In cases where precedent is not
instructive, the editors will sort out what course of action is
I would note that the Daily News has gone decades without an ethical
scandal. To some degree, that's probably a matter of good luck, but to
a far greater degree it's the result of good judgment by the staff,
from top to bottom.
"Standardization of skills (as well as knowledge), in which different work is coordinated by virtue of the related training the workers have received (as in medical specialists - say a surgeon and an anesthetist in an operating room –responding almost automatically to each other’s standardized procedures)"Journalists should already know ethics codes such as The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics with its four main headings:
- Seek Truth and Report It
- Minimize Harm
- Act Independently
- Be Accountable
I remember reading in my first graduate class, that some organizations want to give employees as much flexibility as possible by not having rules. The effect, the author wrote (I think it was Amatai Etzioni in Modern Organizations), is that the organizations still have unwritten rules in the heads of the managers, and the employees are more constrained in these organizations. They have to guess what's allowed. They don't know when they will get in trouble for violating the unwritten rules. That's not the intent of managers who don't have rules, but it's often the effect.
Blogging is different from mainstream journalism and bloggers are creating their own standards for how to do things. Some blogs are meant to be more entertainment or personal reflection or even ranting than news. Here at What Do I Know? I want readers to clearly know what is my original work and what comes from other places, with links to the sources. I also want my newsy pieces to be fair to the subjects, accurate, and to offer various perspectives that would help the viewer understand what happened. I also want to use the story to illustrate larger issues and principles, like a case study. I want this not to be an isolated incident, but to show it as part of a larger pattern of how things work.
Contacting the subject of a story is something I should do more frequently. That may slow some stories down, but as I think about it, when I've done it in the past, the stories have always been better for it. I hope though, that even when I don't get in contact with the subject, my work offers reasonable possibilities of what they might have said on their own behalf when that's appropriate. I don't think I did that in this case.