Online news aggregators such as Google News and Apple News curate and hoover up content from around the Internet, which the platforms then publish in algorithmically ranked news feeds. Sometimes this news feed content can include press releases, which are presented alongside journalistic articles, without any distinction marked between the two. For example, consider this curious juxtaposition offered by Google News on April 14, 2020: A press release about a new product launch from a cannabis company appeared in the “Science” news feed alongside stories from legacy media outlets.
Press releases, typically published as official written statements by institutions and corporations to communicate information about an event, a product, or other new development to members of the news media, have been a part of the news ecosystem for at least a century. Public relations firms send press releases to journalists in the hope that reporters will cover the event announced in the release and in turn reach a large audience. Press releases are also distributed through publicity wire services such as PR Newswire and GlobeNewswire that publish hundreds of press releases a day.
But how do these press releases end up in the platforms we turn to for news? The reasons are part technological and part journalistic.
Algorithmic news feeds are sucking up content from everywhere
Press releases end up in our news feeds because of where platforms decide to harvest content. At a basic level, by including PR wire services such as GlobeNewswire that solely publish press releases among the list of outlets whose content it aggregates, Google News is bound to curate press releases into its news feeds.
Not all “news” sites are as transparent about the fact that they republish press releases, making the issue a more nuanced one for tech platforms. For example, the top story in the Apple News “Science” section on March 23, 2020 (see image) was a press release about a study conducted by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center published on the site Scienmag, which appears to exclusively republish unattributed press releases (not to be confused with Science Magazine).
Many of the press releases related to scientific research that appear in platform science or health news feeds come to news aggregators from websites like phys.org or medicalxpress.com that publish press releases along with original news articles about research, making it even harder to distinguish between the two types of content. A journalist or someone trained in PR might recognize these as press releases based on contextual clues in the article, news feed algorithms do not recognize the distinction.
Press releases also show up, presumably, because a news industry dependent on advertising is incentivized to publish cheap content that can be used to serve ads.
When journalists republish instead of report
Even if platforms were to ban PR wires from news feeds, PR copy would still show up as news, because of current journalistic practices. While there are dozens of search results for guides about how to write press releases, there is much less guidance for journalists on how to cover them.
The New York Times, publishes an extensive set of ethical guidelines for its journalists, and does not prescribe standards for incorporating press releases into reporting beyond a general rule against avoiding plagiarism of any sort. The Associated Press devotes one paragraph to press releases in its News Values and Principles, emphasizing that press releases should never be published in their original form.
Most newsrooms would state they operate according to similar principles. However, in 2012, a debate over press releases ignited when a former Kansas City Star reporter sued the newspaper after being fired for copying and pasting paragraphs verbatim from press releases for years. In an informal follow-up poll of 1,300 journalists by the Poynter Institute, 20 percent of respondents said that it is acceptable to copy material from press releases without attribution. Poynter noted that the PR industry’s official trade organization itself states that such copying without attribution should not be considered plagiarism because press releases are intended to be used in the first place by journalists.
However, even if the writers of press releases don’t mind if their words are copied by journalists, readers expect that the copy they see in a newspaper, unless otherwise attributed, has been written by a journalist. While journalists should aim to present all sides of a story, a press release presents only one perspective.
We need a considered approach for press releases in news feeds
What happens to the quality of our information when an unlabeled press release is presented, without comment, in a news feed alongside actual news articles? Unless a reader is trained in reading PR copy or embarks on a comparative analysis of the words in an article to published press releases, there is virtually no way to tell the two apart.
Further exploration and research are needed from media scholars, journalists, and platform designers to address the presence of PR copy in our news feeds in a way that adheres to journalistic principles and is transparent to audiences. Codifying these norms might not only improve the news feed but the practice of journalism itself.