It may be difficult sometimes for news consumers to decipher between a news article written by a journalist and a press release composed by a public relations practitioner, especially when the number of the latter outnumbers the former. In an era of websites and social media, press releases are plentiful and can be easily shared. So, readers should take heed.
No offense to those in the public relations field. These are the people who play a valuable role in working with journalists to alert them about interesting stories in their coverage areas and connect them with important people.
However, during times when newsrooms are short-staffed and websites make it easier to post items, many times press releases may appear as articles, though they adopt a public relations position that aims to promote rather than inform. For many news outlets, the luxury of using a press release as only a starting point and digging in deeper with their own reporting has become more and more difficult. And with one quick posting, a story presented by a PR person is shared as news.
When it comes to some short pieces — say about an upcoming career fair, what’s going on at the local library or what awards students or people have won — sharing a short press release isn’t a bad idea. When applicable and appropriate, these pieces can be a valuable tool, because journalists can’t be everywhere.
But when it comes to articles that take on controversial subjects, such as where taxpayer money goes, or where an elected official or political candidate stands, it would be wiser to look for the pieces written by a bona fide journalist. Why? Simply because a press release is written to present the stance of a person or institution, usually from a positive point of view. News articles written by journalists look to represent the various sides of an issue, and when it comes to hot button topics, to find the information that wasn’t revealed. This information is also vetted and double-checked.
It’s important for readers to pay attention to what they are reading. When it comes to contentious events, does the article include all sides? Does it cite documentation that verifies the stated facts? Does it show different points of view and include the names of people who chose not to comment? Be sure to look for multiple points of view from credible, authoritative people with firsthand knowledge of a situation, such as an eyewitness or an expert.
It can be difficult at times. There are those contacts who are inaccessible — some even hiding behind their public relations staff — and with short-staffed newsrooms, a well-written press release can be a big help. But when it comes to articles about contentious topics and important matters, make sure that article you’re about to quote at the dinner table or party or share on social media has been carefully constructed by someone who attends the meetings, makes the phone calls and asks the important questions.
Sharpen your skills when it comes to interpreting information. The skill is essential at a point in time when the ways of democracy are being challenged.