McGuire on Media

Press releases, cost cuts and the search for values boundaries

Declining resources are creating some newsroom necessities that are uncomfortable for a lot of editors and reporters. Shortcuts which would never have been considered 15 years ago are becoming a part of daily operational procedure. The dilemma is what ethical values and boundaries survive these shortcuts and which ones become quaint artifacts of a wistful, too-good-to-be-true  past.

While we continue to parse what plagiarism means, the press release problem I wrote about a few weeks ago continues, and in my mind gets worse.  Take a look at this press release from the Arizona State University sports information department.  Now take a look at this story labeled from “Republic News Sources” that appeared on azcentral.com. The only discernible differences in the two pieces are  azcentral.com inserted a paragraph mark before Stephen Sauer and before “Hawaii starter” deeper in the piece.  Two paragraph marks.

Early Saturday morning one of my sharp students pointed this out to me. In his email to me he labeled it “funny.” I think he meant funny as in peculiar. I took the two stories to a breakfast with my old friend, Arnie Robbins, the  editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who was visiting the Valley of the Sun.  When I showed the stories to Arnie he said his paper doesn’t do that. He recognized it is a serious ethical problem. I  could see the giant “but’ coming from a mile away. “Resources are really tight at every newspaper….” I replied with more than a little vehemence something to the effect that, “yeah, but in the name of declining resources we’re sacrificing all our values.”

Arnie smiled that there-goes-crazy-Tim-again smile of his and  said “You know you said, ALL our values, you know that’s not true.”  By then I’d recovered my cool and eloquently shot back, “who really knows?”

This is the debate I don’t think we’re having enough in the newspaper business. Where are the lines that get blurred by expediency? It’s pretty obvious diversity is one value that’s already taken a hit in the name of cost-cutting. As crucial as diversity should be, I guess I thought ethical considerations like plagiarism would be sacred. Perhaps not, but what values, principles and best practices can and will survive the resource onslaught?

There’s a lot of evidence that we start down slippery slopes only to find ourselves in thick, deep, gooey mud. A shrouded secret is that many newspapers have been using short “digest” items on swimming, gymnastics and other less publicized sports from press releases for some time. Now it appears game coverage is getting the same treatment.

I have gathered that a phrase like “Republic News Sources’ is the jargon that is supposed to tip off the reader that the story came from public relations sources. I don’t think that’s enough.  If newspapers are convinced it is appropriate to use press releases for game coverage, then let’ see total transparency. The byline should read “From ASU Sports Information Department.” Then readers know without question the source of that story and they can make the judgements they want about the game and the newspaper.

I like the standard used by my friend Pam Fine, managing editor at the Indianapolis Star, who says a Star credit cannot go on a story unless “our newsroom adds value.”  That’s a great standard and one that should be adopted.

I am not assuming this practice is one confined to Arizona. It’s probably only a matter of time before a sports information department fails to mention a brawl or some other unseemly event at a game that would have been revealed by in-person coverage. Those are the kinds of risks that are being taken as a result of cost-cutting decisions. There is less coverage by professional reporters.

I hate the fact that readers get a worse news product, but I am even more concerned about which ethical values are being checked at the door by resource-strapped newsrooms.

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