Just in time for the weekend, here’s a topic that is sure to fuel heated debates among less scrupulous journalists and junior PR types – churnalism. For those unfamiliar with churnalism it is the act of reprinting portions or all of a press release as news without citation. In other words: publicly lazy plagiarism.
This is not a new concept however it is taking up several column inches now that a journalist is suing his former employer after being fired for “using press release material verbatim without attributing the sources” according to the newspaper where it all went down – The Kansas City Star. See how easy that was? Just snuck in a little citation with minimal effort and everyone’s happy.
Columnist Steve Penn was fired by The Kansas City Star for failing to attribute content to a press release. Penn is suing McClatchy Newspapers, according to reports, alleging that this was an approved practice and that he was uninformed that the policy had been changed.
If you are in media relations or a journalist you have seen this practice before. For the most part, sections of press releases are run along with familiar citations including “In a prepared statement…”, “According to a press release from XYZ…”, or pre-empted by the dreaded “The following is a press release from XYZ…” I always hated that last one since it showed no interest on the part of the journalist who most likely needed to post something to meet their quota for the day.
According to today’s Ragan’s PR Daily, some consider press release repurposing a “minor victory” for the original writer. I am not in that camp and any decent PR professional would not be able to see that camp from where they stand. It is the mentality left to staffers possessing juvenile names including guru or kahuna.
Regardless of policy, failing to cite sources specifically or in general goes to the heart of journalistic integrity. It is a basic function of the journalist similar to Who, What, When, Where, Why, don’t bury the lead, and a host of other practices so remedial they are known to those outside of the profession.
In possibly the worst part of this story, Penn is suing for funds that he alleges he is owed due to the harm the firing has done to his career. That sum?…$25,000. This from a staffer hired by the paper in 1980 and a columnist since 2000.
I think it’s time to write his book: