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MEDIA / KEVIN BRASS : Press Release Use Causes Stir in Tribune Newsroom

In the San Diego Tribune newsroom, staffers are questioning their editors’ definition of plagiarism when it involves press releases, after a recent incident involving a real-estate reporter.

A few weeks ago, a story on Los Angeles redevelopment with Trib real estate reporter Herb Lawrence’s byline was killed by editors when it was discovered to be extremely similar to an article that ran in a small Los Angeles business magazine. Later it was learned that the story in the magazine, as well as Lawrence’s story, were derived from a press release.

The story didn’t run, and Tribune management apparently took no formal action against Lawrence. A veteran of more than 20 years with the paper, and its former building editor, Lawrence was suspended for a week in 1982 after he lifted large sections of a story from an article in an architectural magazine, according to published reports at the time.

Sources in the newsroom said that much of the redevelopment story was taken verbatim from the press release. Lawrence declined to comment.

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“There is disenchantment far and wide in the newsroom over this,” said one Trib staffer. “We’d like an accounting of what occurred and how it was handled. If it was plagiarism, does management condone plagiarism?”

Tribune Deputy Editor Bob Witty refused to discuss specifics of the Lawrence case, but he acknowledged that an accusation of plagiarism was recently presented to him. Material from a press release was used “liberally,” Witty said, but it was not a case of plagiarism.

“If you look up the definition of plagiarism, it is the unauthorized use of someone’s material,” Witty said. “When someone sends you a press packet, you’re entitled to use everything in there.”

In general, Witty said, press releases are helpful as background, but it is “sloppy to take things too much from releases.”

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Certainly, public relations people don’t mind their material being used in articles.

“I take that almost as flattery,” one public relations veteran said. “I’d be in hog heaven if all my press releases were used verbatim.”

The standard industry philosophy, echoed by Witty, is that press releases should be used only as background information for stories.

But such general guidelines are sometimes ignored. Quotes are taken from releases without being identified as prepared statements. Phrases from releases are used in bylined stories. Reporters, especially on small papers, simply rewrite press releases and put their names on the new product, adding little or no new information.

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“I’m an absolutist,” said Don Sneed, professor of journalism at San Diego State University. “You can’t be a little pregnant. If you’re going to take a paragraph from a press release, it’s wrong. If you’re going to take a handful of words, that’s wrong.”

Certainly all papers use rewritten press releases, without bylines, especially as briefs in real-estate and business sections. Some, especially understaffed weekly papers, commonly insert press releases into the paper, without bylines, as news or informational stories.

But there are gray areas. For example, what if a reporter rewrites a press release and adds just a sprinkling of new information? Is it fair to give the reporter a byline on the story?

“The question in this case is, is he giving readers the good faith they deserve?” said Lee Brown, another San Diego State professor. “In my view, to claim for your own work that is not yours is not playing fair with the readers.”

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Until recent times, public relations representatives often would develop stories for the real-estate sections of many newspapers, supplying reporters with quotes and detailed information.

But times are changing. At the San Diego Union, for instance, there was a change in editors two years ago, the real-estate department’s staff was increased, the section’s emphasis was moved away from commercial real-estate news, and the policy toward press release information was dramatically changed to eliminate the verbatim use of press releases. This created a furor among public relations practitioners, some of whom talked of boycotting the section.

Now, the Union’s real-estate section’s policy is to attribute the source if a quote or information is used from a press release, according to Lizanne Poppens, news editor of the Union’s Home section.

“It was probably commonplace to have more of an industry approach to real-estate news in real-estate sections throughout the country,” local public relations veteran Jim Frampton said. “About 10 years ago, the trend began throughout the industry toward more consumer-oriented sections. There was less of a reason to quote Joe Blow from XYZ Builders on the economy,” precipitating a de-emphasis of press release-supplied information.

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The use of press release information in stories has been questioned in the Tribune newsroom in the past. A year ago, a columnist was accused of copying a few paragraphs from a press release. The Lawrence case has simply raised the topic again.

“To do nothing about it reaffirms reporters’ laziness” toward press releases, one Tribune staffer said. “It’s telling them it’s OK to do this type of thing.”

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