McGuire on Media

Press releases, bylines and a short musing on recruiting

Last fall I was teaching my Media Ethics class with the high drama I am sometimes known for when I demonstrated to my students what happens to press releases. I ceremoniously went to the circular trash receptacle and ripped some pages into small pieces over that glorious container.

I got A’s for theatrics, but D’s for truth. Several students promptly took issue with me contending that they have been doing public relations work and they are routinely seeing their work used verbatim in newspapers. I was stunned and, frankly, quite disbelieving.

My skepticism has sadly retreated in the last few months. One of my colleagues received this Christmas letter from a former student and his wife who both work on the Hill for congressmen. It contains this line with the names changed:

“A highlight for Hector—and a source of disillusionment for me—was having his press releases consistently printed verbatim as news stories. (Some newspapers even gave him a byline, making it look like he was their reporter.) It’s a testament to Hector’s skill as a press flack but, silly me, I had this crazy idea that reporters got out there and, I dunno, reported.”

My colleague and I sense this is getting to be a big problem. As my colleague wrote to me, "As newspapers’ resources are stretched, (newspapers) seem to be using press releases wholesale – without even the pretense of doing any reporting or rewriting." We have both heard specific stories of press releases being printed in newspapers word for word – sometimes with a reporter’s byline slapped on the top. I will admit I once fired a reporter for that.

I kept quiet during the Professor John Merrill brouhaha largely because I thought the industry heavyweights  had adequately debated the issue with Missouri heavyweights. I have to say I think Merrill did wrong and the loss of his column was probably a proper outcome. That said, I am convinced picking up a press release and putting the paper’s name or, worse, a reporters name over that press release, is a far worse offense. We teach our students that this is plagiarism, yet it seems to be becoming an industry standard. 

Deceit is the principle  that makes us believe plagiarism is so wrong. When we pretend a piece is ours, and it was actually written by an institution or a business, we are deceiving our readers. I know times are tough and filling that great maw of space is an intimidating challenge, but is this really a line that’s worth crossing?

I tell my students the test is, "am I willing to make it clear to the readers that I am doing this?" Are we willing to be totally transparent about our actions? I suggest if we think reprinting press releases verbatim is fine behavior let’s simply credit the business or the institution that sent us the press release.  If we are not willing to do that I suggest we are ashamed of the action. That should tell us it is wrong.  

IF YOU DON’T CRY………

If you don’t cry for the young man who perpetrated a hoax by pretending to be recruited to California to play  college football you are not a parent.  And, if you don’t think the media has played a role in his tragic story, brilliantly reported by Gene Wojciechowski on ESPN.com, then you think it normal that scores of web sites and the Worldwide Leader in Sports are hanging on the decisions of 18-year-old kids. I use the term kids intentionally in this case even though it’s a term I try to avoid. These impressionable, developing young people are under incredible pressure. The sports media has intentionally, or inadvertently, decided to make them stars.  School press conferences, small towns going wild, coaches preening and media salivating would make any youngster lust for the attention.

I have been intrigued by the legs this story has and the conversation it has stimulated. It is a sociological story as much as a sports story.  In this case the coach, the parents and the school raise my eyebrows as much as the actions of the young man, and I find people want to discuss the adults. I hope the conversations cause everyone to reflect a bit on whether this kind of media attention on a young person’s college choice makes sense.

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