One of the realities of freelance journalism is that not all sources are created equal. Even the “big guys” might not be as reliable as you think.
Earlier today, Phil from PT Money posted (on Facebook) a link to a post from The Atlantic, which announces a new tool from the Sunlight Foundation. This tool is called Churnalism, and its main purpose is to help you identify “news stories” that are actually just press releases that have been repackaged.
Press Releases and News Outlets
News outlets are always looking for news, whether it’s for their print editions, or for their online resources. One of the resources that news editors have are newswires. This allows them to pull something off Reuters or from the Associated Press, and fill space.
However, newswire subscriptions can get expensive.
Press releases are free. And it’s easy to take the information in a press release and turn it into a blog post or news article. I do it all the time. When you receive a press release with the results of an interesting survey, or a new product, it makes sense to want to cover it.
Often, though, I report the information found in the press release, and then share my own thoughts about it. One of the things you need to watch out for is when a press release is just taken in its entirety and put up as “news.” The new Churnalism tool is likely to help you identify this issue. If a number of news outlets are simply taking phrases from the press release, you can then consider the source of the press release.
Realize that many news outlets just take press releases and use chunks of them — or even the whole release — to fill space. It provides content, and the big guys don’t seem to get slapped by Google as much as the smaller blogs. In fact, if you provide content to a smaller blog, just publishing the press release, or portions of it, could mean you are penalized for duplicate content.
Survey results are certainly interesting, but you need to be discriminating about the results. Who sponsored the survey or study? Ask yourself that question. There are plenty of statistics out there, but no one knows better than my husband (who teaches university classes on the subject) how they can be manipulated.
Unfortunately, you can’t just go to CNN or The New York Times web site and expect that the information presented there is going to be completely reputable. The Churnalism tool can help you see whether you are looking at true “original” reporting, or whether you are looking at information repurposed from a press release. This can be useful, since many press releases are written to read like news articles. (I learned how to write press releases in my undergrad days in a PR class.)
A press release can be a great place to get an idea for your next blog post, or to look for interesting resources for a freelance journalism assignment. But consider remember that a press release is paid for by a company, and it is meant to serve as publicity; it’s a marketing tactic. It might be written like a news article, but it’s not the same thing.
What do you think? Do you use press releases for ideas? Or even quotes? Do they make your job easier?