Saturday, July 07, 2012

Editor Feedback - ADN Press-Release Post Follow Up

Nut Shell:  Printing verbatim press releases with minimum citation is NOT Anchorage Daily News policy.

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, except
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. "
He also wrote:
"Prompted by your column, we discussed this issue among editors here
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."
He 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:
". . .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
a difference.

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. You
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.
As 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. 

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 good
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.
Presumably, 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:
"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
Presumably a newspaper like the ADN can rely on a code like that.  But the New York Times has its own, very detailed Policy on Ethics in Journalism.   Some would argue that the NYT rules are so detailed that they restrict flexibility. 

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.


  1. I think the larger problem (or maybe the root...) is repetitious AP printing. What used to be a convention to rapidly transmit stories (that a journalist would develop and add to), has become nothing more than reprinting a blog post verbatim. I hate it.
    Come on. When a "story" has been reprinted 1,000 times from west coast to east, it is dead. It is no longer a story.

    Press releases used to be very specifically to provide info to a journalist, who would then do a story. Even the format - three '#' marks showing where the end was and additional information about the organization or topic below that for quick easy reference - was meant to be the BASIS for a story.
    A press release was never meant to be reprinted verbatim. Boy, if it was, that was a stroke of luck for the company!

    Not too long ago, a small local weekly printed an email as a story. Verbatim, in its entirety, the only treatment was to remove salutation and signature. Including personal communication to the journalist obviously not part of the story and phone numbers.
    It was so awkward and badly done that you just felt sorry for the guy.

  2. As a former newspaper reporter (for a top-rate daily) and graduate of two of the allegedly greatest journalism schools, I can testify that there is not a widely learned and accepted code of ethics. (At least when I was working some time ago, and it's generally felt that standards were higher then, so maybe it's even worse today.) Rather you do what the people around you do, whether that means following orders from your editors or mimicking what other reporters do.

    In the olden days a reporter depended heavily on the guidance and oversight of editors. Today, unfortunately, I detect a lot of material in the newspaper without visible signs of editing. Using press releases without additional reporting is one very common example. Bad grammar and spelling is another.

    Except at the NYTimes. Washington Post and a handful of other newspapers I believe that "ethics" is in practice nonexistent. The bottom line, which has reporters required to post online 24/7 from their laptops in the front seat of their cars as well as to write for the printed newspaper, leaves very little opportunity for careful checking of facts or in-depth reporting. I can't speak for broadcast news, but as an occasional viewer, can't say that I see much high quality journalism being practiced in that venue.

    Good for you if you resolve to seek comment from the people you write about in your blog. I think this is commendable, and that it's a higher standard than many bloggers follow.

    1. Bloggers are trumping journalists. A natural outcome of our wired insta-news world but if there is no higher standard, what will be the point?

      Steve wrote,
      "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."

      That's the nub: once a writer (or person) does NOT ascribe sources & is caught out, he can never be trusted again. At least IMO. It's unethical and I'm old enough to be surprised & saddened that Ethics courses needs to be taught.

  3. I applaud Dougherty for responding. I would actually like to investigate what is precisely considered a press release. Our newspaper would often receive “boosterism" ads disguised as press releases. I would actually put some parts of the offending press release in that category.

    It is worth perusing old newspapers (100 years old plus or minus) to see how boosterism was or was not handled. It would be quite enlightening.

  4. I appreciate the comments from you with traditional journalism experience. I suspect the two underlying issues are a) that newspapers, in many cases, are part of conglomerates these days rather than independent businesses and b) the technological changes that took newspapers' basic sources of income. Add to that the economic downturn and they're cutting corners all over.

    Kathy, I think the ADN has a pretty good record in ethics and does try - Dougherty's response shows it does matter to him. I know some of my fellow bloggers won't agree, but overall, my experiences with him have been good.

    Anon 4:46pm thanks for recognizing Dougherty for responding. He clearly didn't have to.

  5. Ah, Steve. I forgive you! Trained as an academic so that of course, you trust much more readily the vetted, printed word. And you’re right; you do need to pick up the phone to talk with sources once in a while.

    Myself, when I submit an essay in a university course here in England and a professor wants to pan that work (as has happened, sorry to say) that instructor invariably will dismiss the submission as 'journalistic'.

    Harsher words are rarely written in these hallowed halls.

    To see you stretch and appreciated these systems of thought and practice is a major reason I continue to read your blog through the years. It's often thoughtful without being pedantic and often questions rather than announce as too many bloggers do.

    This matter of ethics in journalism is important and the 'lame stream media' has a generational responsibility to hand off its battered ethics to a young independent and highly atomized reportage called blogging. News print wasn’t with us very long. It is, really, a mere blip in the history of what was always personal communications.

    We are, as one observer put so well, 'going back to the fence post' for our news. Only now it's in an unverified electronic form. And as the humans we are, with the imperfect memory we possess, calling these bits of (often) fluff, news is ennobling what has always been gossip.

    Yet it is gossip parading as news where we've nearly always been. Person-to-person verification as news sourcing – it’s the most sought-after form of advertising for positioning products. In positioning news, verification by blog appeals to our world view. I wish to heaven there was some sort of ethics program for bloggers who wanted to be held accountable to facts and readers. Kinds sorta like Creative Commons, only for news writing.

    We have moved (back) into an era of unconstrained misinformation. We are richer for the shear offer of its variety; we are poorer for its lack of depth.


    After reading many of the dailies here in Britain, I decided on a home subscription to the "International Herald Tribune". Each morning, I hold a paper that informs and opens me to ideas previously unknown, allowing me to check further on my own.

    Yes, I admit it’s my ‘gossip fence’, but unlike far too many blogs, it’s rooted in an ethos of what news and information should be about when highly skilled and talented staff going about the still very important job put before them... and then face an editor.

    All the best with helping to reshape the world of opinion called instant news. Keep learning and teaching.

  6. Jacob, I don't see a conflict between journalism and academia. Those who use their membership in either field mainly to bolster their self-esteem might disparage the other. But serious members of both seek 'truth.' Journalists have a more immediate time frame, academics have a longer time frame and perhaps wider context. The best practitioners of both fields respect each others' work.

    Barbara, responding to your surprise that ethics needs to be taught will take longer to address. Later.


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