A regular flow of press releases demands editors’ everyday attention. The communications, in varying degree, play a role in newspaper content. Their value looms even larger in today’s landscape of diminishing newsroom resources.
COVID-19, and its strain on schedules and access, sadly has prompted an increased reliance on publishing releases – often verbatim. Many traditional news sources have seized the opportunity to adopt releases as standard practice to ensure the newspaper “gets it right.”
It’s unfortunate, but many newspapers are willingly accepting the new regimen of news gathering. Reporters make little or no attempt to follow up with the those who sent the release or to seek other voices.
Releases certainly suffice for a variety of standard announcements. The city announces new landfill hours. Dates are released for the school’s sports camps. The county alerts when roads will be closed for construction.
At the same time, staffs must pay close attention to those submissions that require additional inquiries for a more complete report – a more meaningful explanation. A closer examination is especially important in public affairs reporting.
Tracking down all the perspectives is essential to delivering a substantive and fair report, especially when a release only addresses a single aspect of an issue. The newspaper’s job is to pursue and present all sides. Don’t be afraid to hold a story until the next edition if it means delivering a more robust report.
Readers were clearly shortchanged in this example.
A school superintendent begins a serious search for greener pastures. He is interviewed for a handful of jobs during the course of about five months. The respective newspapers report his status as a finalist. The information is readily available via a Google search.
He finally lands a job, which is announced by his resignation at the local school board meeting. The newspaper’s meeting report the next day is absent any mention, though the news circulates on Facebook. The newspaper reports the resignation three days after the fact, and then it’s a press release from the district’s PR folks accompanied by a submitted photo.
The report makes no mention of the superintendent’s aggressive search for a new job. The report gives no indication of why he’s moving on. The report makes no reference of the superintendent’s latest performance evaluation, which was average at best, and whether that was a factor. The report is absent any comment from school board members or anyone else in the community. The report is minus any comment from the new employer.
Instead, the newspaper publishes the district’s press release with its expected PR spin with prepared comments from a single source: the superintendent. He praises his experience and the community as a great place to learn – a district, like many others, that has experienced challenges in recent years, but is on the right path. “Board members and employees are completely committed to providing strong educational experiences for all children who attend our schools.”
At best, the newspaper was aware that the superintendent was looking hard for new job, but chose to ignore that fact. At worst, the staff had no inkling and did not attend the meeting where the resignation was announced. Either way, the substandard reporting tarnished credibility. The lackluster coverage did nothing to promote the newspaper as a source for local news.
Yes, seeking and incorporating the many varied – and pertinent – voices and perspectives takes time and hard work. That’s the definition of solid journalism that benefits your newspaper and readers alike.