Job ads

Want to advertise your jobs on this page and on the ABSW's members only mailing list?

Details here...

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Science Reporting by Press Release

Cristine Russell, one of the more capable science journalist on either side of the pond, she used to be on the staff of the Washington Post, has an interesting take on the use of press releases in the trade. She has written about this in Science Reporting by Press Release in the Columbia Journalism Review. Cris describes "the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories" as a " dirty little secret of journalism".

Cris's article has details of various examples of the phenomenon. For example, she describes a discussion panel at the National Association of Science Writers where a topic of conversation was a press release, “Living fossils have hot sex,” from the University of Utah. This was picked up by, among others, Reuters, New Scientist and ABC (Australia). The irony, perhaps, is that the author of the release, Lee J. Siegel, has, as Cris puts it, had a "a long science journalism career with The Associated Press and Salt Lake Tribune" before he went to work for the university.

Like any good hack, Cris actually interviewed Lee about the phenomenon. He too expressed concern, complaining that “some news services just rewrite the press releases without interviewing anyone and don’t make clear the story is from a news release”.

The item provoked a thoughtful debate with comments from a number of equally eminent science journalists. One comment that struck home was the puzzlement in one comment about the failure of big media outlets to "link their own stories to the various press releases that their reporters had at hand". After all, it doesn't take much more than a few seconds with Google News to track down such references. Cris does not make this mistake. Her article provides a link to the original Utah press release.

Unfortunately, the excellent discussion does not seem to include any comments from perpetrators of this crime against humanity. Lee does step in to provide some balance, but it would have been nice to see more defence of use of press releases. Surely someone must have a good word to say for them.