I was not trained as a journalist, so before I started working for the Planetary Society I had no understanding of how much news reporters depend upon press releases to generate story ideas. Did you know that most of the news that you read on the Web or in a newspaper or hear on the radio probably originated as a press release or an arranged press event from somewhere? The less specialized the media outlet, the more likely the news came from a press release. That has important implications (some good and some bad) about the quality and diversity of the information you receive when you read news. While I've learned about this process while working within the space community, I think that the phenomenon is similar in other fields in science, medicine, and technology, and maybe even beyond. I thought it might be interesting to some of you to tell you a bit about how this works.
So: what is a press release? Most institutions and organizations have one or more Public Information Officers (PIOs) whose job it is to identify newsworthy stories originating at their institution and to prepare timely information about them for dissemination to journalists. These stories may have to do with scientific publications, or new results presented at scientific meetings, or noteworthy events on missions or in the sky. The PIOs collaborate with the technical people whose work is the subject of the story to translate it into language that's comprehensible by journalists and the general public. Then they send the press releases out to the world, nowadays most often by email and by posting them on websites. [I could, but won't, get into the subject of news embargoes here; I don't participate in embargoes. Read Embargo Watch if you're interested in that.]
A great many PIOs are themselves trained journalists. So the press releases that they write are written really well. They sound very much like newspaper articles, with punchy ledes, quotes from experts, and a format that goes from big-picture to progressively greater detail. A lot of places where you can read news actually print press releases more or less verbatim. This practice has become so common that it's acquired the moniker "churnalism."
Churnalism, an example
An example of "churnalism," the practice of posting press releases as news stories. On the left is a peer-reviewed article in Nature, "Hydrogen-poor superluminous stellar explosions," by Robert Quimby et al., 2011. In the center is a press release about this study, posted on the Caltech Media Relations website; Quimby is a postdoc at Caltech. On the right is a screen cap of the press release posted, verbatim, on physorg.com.
Science churnalism has its pluses and its minuses. When the stories are posted verbatim or nearly so, they can at least be (mostly) relied upon for factual correctness. The press releases are almost always written in consultation with the real experts on the story -- an author of the publication or a manager or scientist on a mission. This collaboration means that the story has been checked and double-checked for accuracy, and the story will emphasize things that the experts think are important.
But it's also bad, because of course the reason that Public Information Offices exist at all is to promote an organization or institution, to present it in a positive light -- it's not a journalism function, it's a marketing function. And the scientists, for reasons of their own, may inflate the importance of their work just a bit, and fail to mention alternative but plausible ideas. I am not at all implying any dishonesty on the part of PIOs or scientists, but it is certainly true that stories are selected for press-release treatment for promotional purposes, and that bad or indifferent news is often just not written about. Other factors are at play in the selection of stories for press-release, too. At big institutions like NASA and JPL, there's competition for time in the limelight, so some worthy stories are completely missed because they would conflict in time with a story that NASA thinks is of greater promotional importance. Also, the impact or importance of a discovery or event is often inflated, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, especially in the story's headline. How many times have we discovered water on Mars or found the largest, hugest, most distant, or otherwise extremest something-or-other in the universe?
Many news organizations feel obliged to publish articles about certain press releases, especially ones that come out of NASA or that relate to articles published in the prestigious weekly journals Nature and Science. That's why you'll suddenly see a rash of stories on the same topic posted on the same day at numerous outlets, and why there's a bump in news on Wednesdays and Thursdays -- Wednesday is when Nature publicly releases its articles, and Thursday is Science's day.
The fact that I was "off the grid" for a whole week in early June gave me the idea of collecting all the planetary science and astronomy press releases (plus a bit of Shuttle stuff) I received in that week. These are all news stories that were delivered right to my email inbox by various means -- stories that landed right in my lap, which I could edit a bit and add a bit of background information and repost in my blog. It seems like a pretty typical week's worth of space news, for a week when there were no major mission events. This are not all of the space press releases from that week, just the releases that I personally received by email. I think it would be a really interesting exercise to select one or two of these stories and search to see which outlets picked up each one, and to check the news story against the press release to see whether original journalism was done, or if the press release was just rewritten a bit and reposted. The following is a ton of text. I'll have more to say after this text, so if you're in a hurry, just skip the block quote.
Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society: "Major Result on the Future of the 11-Year Sunspot Cycle to Be Announced Tuesday, 14 June, 11 a.m. MDT"
This is an awful lot of news. It would be tough to cover all or even most of it, though a few outlets do try to cover a lot of it (notably Universe Today and space.com). NASA shows up over and over, in part because they've got a lot of exciting activity to talk about, but also because NASA is, hands down, the best of these organizations at selling compelling stories to the media.
Go ahead and check around at some space news sites -- Universe Today, SPACE.com, MSNBC's Space section, or blogs like Bad Astronomy -- for the period from June 5 to 11 to see what topics they covered. You'll see a lot of these press-released stories covered on most of those sites. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that -- press-released stories are pre-selected for being interesting to the public, so it makes sense that multiple news outlets should choose to write about them. And these sites aren't churnalist ones; the writers do independent reporting. In fact I rely on Universe Today and Bad Astronomy to give me an independent look at big news stories. I'm just pointing out that a large portion of stories that get covered are the ones that are selected for press-release treatment, and a lot of outlets cover the same stories.
You'll find that some news sites print press releases almost verbatim most or at least some of the time, while others never post stories without thoughtful analysis, and some do a mix. There's a thoughtful blog called Knight Science Journalism Tracker that picks some press-released stories and examines how different outlets presented the news.
By now you're probably wondering what my point is, and I have to admit it's actually changed several times since I started writing this blog entry. I suppose there are two main points -- one for the public, and one for scientists.
For the public: Just because a story is being reported on a dozen different news outlets doesn't mean that all of those news outlets examined all space news and decided that that was the best thing happening today. Usually it means that a sensational press release arrived in everybody's inbox at the same time and they all felt they had to cover it.
But there is so much exciting stuff happening in space exploration that doesn't get the press-release treatment, so is generally ignored by most space media. When I went to part-time hours I was forced to give up any pretense at covering the big stories of each day in a journalistic manner, because I could never be as fast as these other websites. But in a way, choosing not to write about most press releases has given me a lot of freedom to dig up stories that I find interesting. It doesn't take much digging; just reading mission websites and conference programs and arXiv and specialist journal tables of contents I get lots of great ideas for posts, way more than I could ever cover by myself.
One interesting exception to this phenomenon in science reporting is magazines, and a few rare newspapers' in-house feature science reporting. Science magazines generally have some up-front short newsy material but their feature articles are thoughtfully selected in an editorial process that considers advances in a field and determines when is the right time to devote four to ten full-color pages to an exciting topic. This is why I think magazines will continue to have an important place in the modern media landscape, because they're a bastion for reflective, researched, independent reporting. I've been doing more writing for magazines lately -- I wrote a feature article on the Late Heavy Bombardment for Sky and Telescope in August, and I have two articles on Curiosity coming out in Sky & Tel and The Planetary Report later this year.
For scientists: If you're wondering why the media don't seem to care about what you're doing, it might be because there hasn't been a press release about it. If you think you have a compelling story to tell, find out who the PIO is at your institution, and give them a heads up about an impending publication. Work with them to craft a story that the public will find comprehensible. You can even do a bit of PIO work yourself and contact bloggers and writers to ask them if they'd be interested in a reprint of your paper (though it's bad etiquette to send a blogger a huge file attachment without asking first). My favorite scientists contact me and say "I have a really interesting story to tell. Would you like me to write a guest blog entry for you about it?"