6 ways journalists can use press releases effectively

When Steve Penn announced earlier this month that he’s suing the Kansas City Star[1], the news sparked an interesting discussion about journalists’ use of press releases and whether it’s OK to use them verbatim, without attribution.

Penn was fired from the Star[2] last July after editors found that he had lifted material from press releases several times dating back to 2008. Penn says in his complaint that “the widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished, and preferably with no or minimal editing.”

But is it?

In an informal poll[3], we asked whether it’s OK for journalists to use press releases in their stories. Of more than 1,300 respondents, 20 percent said it’s OK to use them without attribution, and only 3 percent called this practice “plagiarism.” The majority said it’s fine to use press releases in stories if they’re attributed. (The Public Relations Society of America says using a press release without attribution isn’t plagiarism[4].)

The range of responses suggests that newsrooms would benefit from having discussions about how to ethically and effectively use press releases. I’ve come up with six related tips to keep in mind.

Think of press releases as a good starting point.

I’ve always thought of social media as a good starting point for finding sources and getting ideas. As helpful as social media can be, journalists still need to use their traditional reporting skills to follow up with the sources they find there and fact-check the information they get.

I think of press releases in a similar way. Press releases can make you aware of information you didn’t know. But when you rely only on releases and don’t do your own reporting, you might miss other key information that helps round out the story. Anyone can paraphrase or quote from a release. As a reporter, you have the skills to take it a step further.

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