[Ed. note: On Feb. 28th, the Sacramento Bee's executive editor, Joyce Terhaar, said she would review the use of press releases on the paper's website. See more here.]
A few weeks ago, the blogger and author Maryn McKenna— who covers emerging infectious diseases, among other things–was sent what looked like a story from The Sacramento Bee about a new bacterial health threat.
Except that it wasn't a Sacramento Bee story. It was a press release from PR Newswire that appeared online in the pages of the Bee.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post acknowledged that it was publishing press releases in its Health & Science section. When that practice was disclosed on the Tracker, the paper quickly reversed its policy. The Post said it had not received any compensation from the sponsors of the releases.
The Sacramento Bee case is different from that of the Washington Post in important respects. The releases in the Post were identified in a way that I thought was easy for readers to miss. That's less true with some of the releases in the Bee. It has published many releases from PR Newswire on a web page clearly headlined "PR Newswire," along with "The Sacramento Bee." And the stories are topped with a yellow info box alerting readers that the press releases "reflect the views of the issuing entity and are not reviewed or edited by the Sacramento Bee staff."
Here's what it looks like:
Even so, the person who sent the superbug story to McKenna missed the alerts, believing that the story was written by the Bee. It's likely that other readers missed it, too.
But it's worse than that. If you go to the Bee's website and search for "superbug," you get a mix of news stories, readers' letters, editorials–and press releases. They are mixed in with the regular editorial copy as if there were no difference between staff-written stories and promotional releases. Sound hard to believe? Here's the search:
Note that all of the results–stories, press releases, and readers' letters–are designated "News." The press releases do have the PR Newswire bug at the top, but if they are meant to be commercial copy–advertising copy–why do they come up in a search as news?
In the Bee's business section, you can find the top stories, and beneath those a section entitled "More Stories" with a list of headlines of wire stories, and beneath that a section entitled, "More Headlines," which sounds like more of the same–more business news.
But it isn't. Under "More Headlines," we get "latest press releases," which include such things as "Stacked Gene Traits Improve Plant Productivity under Multiple Environmental Stresses" from Arcadia Biosciences, Inc. by way of Business Wire.
The question is, do readers see the small print that says "latest press releases," or do they skip over it? Here it is:
It seems the Sacramento Bee has narrowly toed the line–press releases are identified as press releases. But I submit that many readers will be confused. These stories, unlike the others I've mentioned, do not carry the yellow box with an alert at the top, nor do they say that they were not produced by the Bee's staff.
This confusion, of course, is wonderful for the companies and promoters behind the press releases, which look almost as if they've passed the scrutiny of the Bee's talented and skeptical reporters and editors.
But the confusion is bad for readers, who might mistake promotional and marketing materials for the strong reporting and news gathering for which the Bee is known. It is bad for the Bee, which risks its reputation as an dependable source of news for readers.
And it is bad for journalism, which depends above all on its readers' trust.