Press releases: what every reader needs to know about them

Here at the MSR, like every other medium, we are daily bombarded with hundreds of press releases from hundreds of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations promoting their products and services. These releases can serve a useful purpose and help us in our newsgathering efforts by providing basic information and ideas for future stories.

However, what every reader needs to know and understand is that these press releases are not news stories, are not meant by themselves to accurately inform people, and should never be run in any reputable publication as if they are news stories.

The information in a press review may be accurate, but most often it is not the whole story, just what the sender wants us to know. We don’t blame the senders of press releases for being one-sided — they are just trying to promote themselves and their services or products, so in effect a press release serves them as an advertisement. The problem lies with newspapers that pass these advertisements off on their readers as news stories.

Responsible journalists know that advertising and press releases should be clearly separated from news stories so readers know what they are getting. Unfortunately, some of our local publications, through carelessness or simply to save money, fill their pages with press releases unidentified as such. They save money by not paying writers to do the work of journalists and tell the whole story, not just what is contained in press releases.

How do you recognize a press release? Usually it runs with no writer byline and all too often without any source of the information being identified. It is often promotional, describing an organization, program or product in clearly biased, positive, even glowing terms. There is never an opposing view in a press release.

Here at the MSR, we take care to use press releases primarily as places to begin developing a story, not as the finished story itself. When we do publish content from a press release, we do so only when it is verifiable, factual information, and we always identify its source.

In our view, any publication that is filled primarily with press releases is doing its readers a great disservice by not providing them with any real news, just disguised promotions and advertisements. And any publication that runs press releases disguised as news stories without identifying them as such is doing the entire community and the profession of journalism a disservice by misleading and misinforming its readers.

If you read a publication and notice that it is filled with unsigned, unattributed, one-sided articles and stories, chances are you are reading press releases under the false impression that you’re getting unbiased news. Our suggestion is that you contact the editor and/or publishers and let them know you do not appreciate being misinformed and misled by their lack of ethical standards, and that they should not pose as a newspaper unless they commit to providing real news.