The fundamental difference between news stories and other forms of storytelling is that news is factual — it should not be a result of fictional imagination, which is to say, all the information in a news story should come from somewhere outside of reporters’ brain.
So, where do journalists get information about things? There are many ways for news reporters to find story ideas, but one of the common ways is to start with a press release.
For example, here is a press release the University of Hong Kong gave to the members of the press in 2011. It basically tells that many international students were choosing our university and the number of overseas applications hit a record high.
The university also had a press conference on campus and invited reporters. It’s a typical press release with lots of positive information with some nice copyright-free pictures.
On the following day, one of the local newspapers in the city, the South China Morning Post, published a story based on this. Another local newspaper, Apple Daily, also carried the same story. This paper also produced a news video that featured some of the pictures provided by the university.
Now, if you look closer, the three stories are essentially identical. The notable difference here is that the two newspaper articles also included one negative aspect, that is, the university’s global ranking dropped 13 places, according to the Times Higher Education rankings.
But that is pretty much the only information added to the press release prepared by the university. The rest of the two news articles are simply a reworked version of what the university wanted the press to publish.
As you can imagine, there are other media outlets in the city that also repeated the same story. Now, how should we read this type of news articles? Is re-writing a press release a work of journalism? How much information can we, the news audience, take at its face value?
The purpose of someone writing a press release is to promote a certain product or project a positive image, right? The keyword here is the purpose.
If we could identify who gave what information to journalists, we’d be much better off because we know why such information is there in the story and we could wonder what other information could be missing.
In my class, I do this exercise with my students. I ask them to check out the website of Hong Kong government’s Information Services Department. The department uploads a lot of press releases that the governmental organizations give to the media every day.
So, on any given day, students can follow the links and read the actual texts that journalists are getting from the government. On the following day, my students can check how many press releases are picked up by the local media and how much of the texts and photos are taken as-is.
This exercise tells us how journalists rely on news releases in our community.
It is not just in Hong Kong. News organizations around the world use press releases heavily. In 2012, many news outlets including the Associated Press reported that Google was taking over a company that provides public wifi hotspots for 400 million US dollars.
It was discovered later that the story was based on a fake press release distributed through PR Web. This embarrassing episode for journalism tells us that more often than not, journalists simply re-distribute press releases to the public without checking and verifying the facts in the story.
Task: Find a press release and then a news article (published by a known news outlet) on the same topic/event. Compare the two and discuss the differences and similarities.
Additional instruction: Your student may ask where they can find press releases. Most companies and governmental offices list out their major press releases on their official websites. This section is often titled something like “What’s New,” “Latest News,” and “Press Room.” For example, Apple calls it “Newsroom” on its website and the U.S. White House has a page simply titled “News“.
Key takeaways for the students
- Some news stories are re-written press releases.
- Journalists do not always verify all the information in the releases or investigate the matter further.
- Smart news audiences should think about who provided the information for the journalists.
The fact-checking organization Boom from India has this great news/media literacy series called Media Buddhi. The following episode tackles the topic of press releases.