This was definitely a post I had to reread. Last week, the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT uncovered the Washington Post‘s practice of publishing press releases from universities as articles in the paper, and today the paper announced that it will cease this practice. I initially misread the headlines and thought that WaPo was cutting all science content, which really upset me, but upon reading the articles, I’m not only glad that they’re ending the practice but also a little annoyed that it was a thing in the first place.
One of the things beaten into students’ heads – and I’m talking all students, not just journos – is that plagiarism in any form is bad, be it copying, lacking citations, or even just being really bad at paraphrasing. In journalism, this is especially bad because our tenets (such as those of the SPJ) include accountability and independence, both of which are undermined by using the content of others without permission.
These press releases, such as this one from the University of Zurich about attractive features and success, are labeled as being from the respective universities, but it still doesn’t make up for the fact that they are more or less presented as original reporting; without the byline, I would’ve taken it as a review of the study. Of course WaPo wants good sourcing, as stated in the explanatory page for the health and science section, but sourcing isn’t exactly the same as taking their content.
Furthermore, the page says they’re “fiercely independent from any commercial interest or advocacy group.” As the KSJ article points out, that would theoretically include the universities that they’re more or less doing PR for when they publish the press releases. If they’re independent, they shouldn’t be publishing press releases. If they are publishing press releases, they should be getting paid by the universities in question for PR.
In all honesty, this was a bit of an immature practice. I might expect this sort of thing from a less-qualified newspaper, but this is the Washington Post we’re talking about, and these reporters aren’t dumb or even inexperienced. As much as I don’t like the idea of name-slinging just to get what you want, these reporters could easily talk to the actual researchers for original reporting. I mean, if I can get in contact with real researchers as a college student with embarrassingly little clout (and Klout…), a WaPo writer certainly could. All in all, there’s no excuse.