"Journalists are too busy rewriting press releases to do vital investigative work"
Relying on the news provided in press releases means that more complicated — but crucial — stories will remain hidden.
As I sat down to write this, I was greeted by more than 100 press releases in my inbox, from scientific journals, universities, research organisations and NGOs — the majority based in the developed world.
All press releases vie for editors' attention, seeking to be widely published to boost the visibility and impact of the organisations they come from.
While this has been a reality for science journalists and editors for some time, the debate on whether or not press releases are beneficial has resurfaced recently and is set to continue over the next few months.
There are sessions planned at the upcoming World Conference of Science Journalists 2013 in Finland to discuss the issue. And the UK's Department for International Development has recently announced the launch of a programme to support the ability of policymakers and the media to assess research findings.
Press releases are convenient because they are written with the media in mind: if a journalist wants to publish the news stories they are based on, often they can just repurpose the release.
Additionally, many of the news stories they contain are embargoed, giving editors the opportunity to see them a few days or hours before they hit the headlines — and valuable commissioning time.
In short, press releases make my life easier. But this can also be their downfall — and it is a major sticking point among scientific journalists.
The easy option
Because of the ready-to-publish nature of press releases, critics say, many science journalists are becoming too lazy to search for original stories that go beneath the surface. Or they are too busy rewriting press releases to do vital investigative work.
Such reporting could explore stories about misconduct; matters that affect policy; the failure to research issues important to vulnerable communities; research that doesn't get published — for example, the promising drug that turns out to be a failure; and disagreements between scientists. These issues are rarely press released.
Each day, science editors and journalists decide what press-released news to cover in their stories, and what not to, giving them a false sense of choice. In fact, their choices are constrained and guided by the organisations deciding what to press release.
As former SciDev.Net news editor Aisling Irwin wrote in an article for the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW): "In this press release-laden life of ours … we sit in gilded cages feeding on the titbits poked through the bars when our real job should be out digging for worms.
"Worms: stories that no-one is paying a communicator to boast about; stories that no-one wants publicised; stories about people who have no voice." 
But to get to these stories, scientists in the developing world "need to be found, pinned down and interviewed, sometimes against their will", Irwin says. This may involve visiting scientists and reporting from the field and from conferences to uncover the untold stories.
Last month, Connie St Louis, president of the ABSW and director of the MA in science journalism at City University in London, reignited the debate. 
She discussed the "information overload" from an "avalanche of press releases", and said journalists are too busy to "separate the wheat from the chaff" at a time when publication relations for science is increasing and independent science journalism is decreasing.
Much science coverage is PR masquerading as reporting, said St Louis. And much of this reporting consists of translating researchers' findings using simplistic language and sensationalism without revealing the underlying ambiguities, tensions and politics.
It takes time and effort to investigate local stories and find views that may be underrepresented in mainstream science, which still largely emanates from Western-based institutions.
This is where independent media organisations dedicated to critical science journalism can play an increasingly important role. They go beyond the story that major corporate and establishment players want to tell and dig for the deeper stories enriched with views from local voices, for example those in developing countries.
Developed world bias
While journalists are oversupplied with information from major science institutions in the West, such potential news is often hard to come by — or non-existent — in developing nations.
A report published by the UK National Commission for UNESCO last year identified the need for a science news service for Africa, one that would dig out and promote important African research to local and global media. 
One could easily envisage a press release service tagged to one of the big regional science journal databases, such as African Journals Online, that could focus some of the media's attention on the science being done in the developing world.
But in our efforts to bring more of the locally relevant and produced science from the developing world to the fore, we mustn't just go for the easiest stories.
Press releases should not replace in-depth reporting and efforts to challenge the status quo of established science, and they should not result in journalists neglecting difficult issues.
In their quest to cover more locally produced science, science journalists in the developing world — and they seem to be thriving — should avoid the pitfalls that press releases have presented to their Western colleagues.
As Irwin wrote: "Being spoon-fed has changed us. We have become indolent. Digging for worms seems like too much hard work."
Editors and journalists should stop rushing to cover the same stories as everyone else and start spending more time on developing original story ideas, including those that various interest groups would prefer not to be told. Instead of being our bread and butter, press releases should be an occasional snack we take between the more hearty meals that really matter for our profession's health.
 Irwin, A. Do science journalists now rely too much on press releases to do their jobs? (Association of British Science Writers, 4 May 2009)
 St Louis, C. Don't let the PR industry annex science journalism (Research Fortnight, 16 January 2013)
 Clayton, J. and Jouber, M. The Need for an African Science News Service (UK National Commission for UNESCO, May 2012)
LIsbeth Fog ( Colombia )
10 February 2013
I wouldn't blame only us, as science journalists. I think this situation has to do with finances as well. When you are writing a feature, you spend more time, you have to research a lot more, compare information from your sources, go back to them sometimes, write and rewrite, travel and so on. For the media company, a journalist like that costs more than the one that is only in the press room receiving the press release, making a few calls from his (her) desk – or sending a couple of emails, and that’s it for writing a short news piece. And that also depends on the type of media (print, radio, TV, ICT). This situation runs in parallel with another one that would be interesting to analyze and that you touch on in your editorial piece. In Colombia, for example, if you want to cover the science field, you will have to keep in touch with universities, science centers, decision makers in health, environment, innovation issues, and you don’t get daily news easier; you have to look for the news. Meanwhile, your colleagues from other sections feed the newspaper easily, because sources are more willing to talk, because there is news every day (sports, political issues). There is a lot more to say. I’m glad this topic will be discussed in Finland.
Lalitha Vaidyanathan ( India )
11 February 2013
I fully endorse Lisbeth Fog. However, in order to boost the credibility of the science journalists, in-depth research and investigation in many cases has become necessary. On several occasions, journalists have to spend from their own pocket also to do it but it's worth it. Competing with other disciplines on different types of media should not be an excuse as a person who worked for a news agency, I know how difficult it is. I am sure the Finland meeting will boost the morale of several science journalists who work under pressure of PR notes and improve the situation in the near future.
Ranbir Singh ( Center for Studies in Science Communication | India )
12 February 2013
As former Public Relations officer of the Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi I can tell that you are absolutely right in saying that unless a journalist digs deep, a good story remains far away. My superiors used to be very critical of me in not preparing and sending press releases of events that, in my view, had little or no news value. Sometime, I did so in order to follow a statutory work ethic but later used to tell them that it would not be taken. Then, they used to have another point to criticize me of not getting enough clout in the media persons to have it published. I served the Council for over 27 years and found that my last boss was more than comfortable with me as he realized that my point in dealing with the media was right and it served best. He is media savvy also. Officials press releases can't be critical and may not include points beyond a limit. However, it may provide certain leads to the media persons. I always used to lead or point out to journalists about other vital points in which they may be interested and speak to the concerned persons for addition 'bytes'. They always remained friendly with me and used to pay great respect. I relied on their understanding of issues and rather than criticizing them, always provided clues to new story lines. I succeeded to my satisfaction. Twenty five or 20 years ago there used to occasions when the entire content of a press release could appear in print but nowadays, the methodology has changed and the news is more live than dead piece of information. It is in direct mode rather than picking up something stale from the past.
Sunetra Ghosh ( India )
12 February 2013
While press releases (PR) do have a tendency to create complacency among journos, it also does help in generating new ideas...sometimes in a rush to file stories and meeting deadlines, our journo friends look around for ideas and this is when a press release could help. If time permits and also in case of prior information sharing via PR, we could also follow up with providing more and in depth information, should that be required.
Additionally, in some cases it also helps build relationships with journalists whom we may not know. By random sending of press releases to journalists with whom we have not interacted before, we build relationships.
I see a press release as a tool to build relationships, generate ideas among many other obvious benefits.
I have in my capacity as a communications/press officer for the international development sector including scientific organizations, encouraged my media friends to do more responsible and innovative reporting. I have helped them with ideas and supported them through information sharing. Not only I have successfully pitched stories but also built relationships with media friends who rely on me sometimes to come up with ideas.
Nevertheless the onus is always on oneself to figure out how to improvise and ideate to come up with informative and interesting articles. PR are never the sole sources of information as it it.
Would love to hear more on this.
Geoffrey Kamadi ( Kenya )
14 February 2013
I recommend this great piece for every journalist out there. This is really informative and instructive.
Michael Kenward ( United Kingdom )
18 February 2013
What a puzzling comment from Lalitha Vaidyanathan.
"However, in order to boost the credibility of the science journalists, in-depth research and investigation in many cases has become necessary."
Become necessary? It always has been.
On the subject itself, I will repeat here something that I have said elsewhere, so excuse the self plagiarism.
Once upon a time, when a press release turned up on paper in an envelope, if you received press releases, you were part of an elite band. Elite in the sense that press releases did what they said. Release information to the press. If you were outside that community, tough.
People still put out things that carry the "press release" label but the role is very different.
Today's press release doesn't pretend to be news bait for a hungry media. It is there to put something on the record. If no one in the media pays any attention, so what? The people who put out the release will have it slapped up in perpetuity so that Google will still find the news – until they decide to rewrite history. (I challenge you to find a press release about Gil Amelio on the Apple site.)
"Your search - gil amelio site:www.apple.com - did not match any documents."
Which is a good reason to maintain your own local stash of releases
Press releases are there for all those "news sites" – think learned societies, trade magazines and so on – to pretend that they are in the know.
For me press releases are for later use: to alert me when I am working on something. For example, I am now in the middle of editing an article on energy storage. With luck I will find some useful material in my archive to fill the infuriating gaps in the text.
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