Advocacy Thought Leadership

Of Press Releases and Plagiarism

A journalist working for the Kansas City Star was recently fired because it was discovered that he had lifted material directly from company news releases without attributing the information as such. But, does a journalist’s cutting and pasting from a news release equal plagiarism? PRSA argues that, with certain exceptions, the purpose of a news release carries an implicit consent to re-use and publish the news release’s content.

These are challenging times in the news business.

According to the 2012 State of the News Media report produced by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “newsrooms continue to shrink … but the remaining editors and reporters are also being stretched further by the need to generate content suitable for smartphones and tablets as well as establishing a social media presence. This is all in addition to putting out the print paper daily and feeding breaking news to websites.”

Given the news environment that exists today, it’s understandable that a journalist would look for ways to do his/her job more quickly and easily. And, publishing material that isn’t theirs — while representing it as their own work — might be one of those ways, but it’s also a good way to get fired.

To be sure, firing a journalist for plagiarism is warranted in most cases. Jayson Blair, Lloyd Brown and Maureen Dowd (who ultimately wasn’t fired) come immediately to mind. But in one particular case, a journalist working for the Kansas City Star was fired because it was discovered that he had lifted material directly from … company news releases … without attributing the information as such.

Which brings up an interesting question. That is, does a journalist’s cutting and pasting from a news release equal plagiarism?

The journalist in question doesn’t think so. In a legal complaint filed in response to his firing, he argues 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.”

In another high-profile instance of alleged plagiarism from earlier this year, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was accused of borrowing content from news releases and columns written by supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), as he drafted his own opinion piece on the proposed act.

But as the state of Utah’s top attorney, Shurtleff defended the practice of using information from a publicly available press release in his op-ed. As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, Shurtleff “denies he plagiarized anyone, arguing it is common practice for public officials to get help writing speeches and opinion pieces, though he doesn’t deny that some sentences were lifted word for word from other sources.”

These positions would seem to be consistent with the way in which public relations professionals think about news releases and plagiarism.

Most public relations professionals I know are thrilled to see some or all of their press releases appear in print. After all, those words found their way onto the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. And what better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release?

But while public relations professionals are usually willing to overlook the ethics of a news organization publishing their content without attribution, given the benefits that accrue to their companies or clients as a result (all key messages delivered!), journalists still are facing scrutiny and criticism over the practice.

In line with the Kansas City Star’s thinking, there’s this from the Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication:

“A good reporter will use the press release as a starting point, going on to do his own reporting and gathering his own quotes. If you do use information from a press release, however, the rules of attribution apply.”

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.

But is it really necessary to attribute dates and times or other general information contained within a press release, when this information is provided specifically for the purpose of publication? Not really.

Perhaps of greater importance to the reputation of the news outlet is to verify the information and claims made in press releases. This is what the Cronkite School means by “using the press release as a starting point.”

True, public relations professionals have a duty to provide accurate and honest information. In fact, the PRSA Code of Ethics requires PRSA members to “[B]e honest and accurate in all communications,” and to “[I]nvestigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.” To do otherwise would discredit the public relations profession, ignore the public relations practitioner’s obligation to serve the public interest and, in all likelihood, burn bridges with the very individuals on whom a defined part of our professional success lies.

But journalists share the public relations professional’s obligation to serve the public interest. To “take our word for it,” especially reprinting someone else’s conclusions and opinions as their own, would be to jettison an important check and balance on the veracity of information offered for public consumption.

It’s easy to see where the Cronkite School is coming from. There’s no court decision of which PRSA is aware that explicitly grants a third party permission to alter a news release, create derivative works based on a news release or reproduce a news release for commercial purposes, or that explores the boundaries of “fair use” as it applies to news releases. Under a strict interpretation of the law, it therefore would seem that news organizations should handle press releases like any other copyrighted content and not freely reproduce or borrow content without permission or a broad waiver to that affect.

In reality, however, a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement on a news release would run counter to the news release’s stated purpose and intent for use by journalists. For that reason, PRSA generally disagrees with the stance that the use of a press release without attribution is plagiarism.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is PRSA’s 2012 Chair and CEO.

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