One of the most commonly expressed criticisms about press releases is that they often bend the truth. Quotes are invented, uncomfortable statistics avoided, and a generally positive sheen is placed on every aspect of the story. Hand-in-hand with this cynicism is a perception that ‘hard news’ written by journalists for their newspapers is superior, with such pieces containing a higher degree of veracity than those that come from the pen of a PR professional.
But the pressure to be first with news can lead to some journalists writing factual pieces to cut corners, with the result that a news piece is released that has a level of truthfulness far below that of any positively spun press release. This phenomenon can be seen with even the most popular papers that have high circulation figures – papers where one should quite rightfully expect strict editorial standards.
One particular piece that was written for the UK’s Daily Mail is an interesting case. The article in question appeared in the Internet version of the paper, the MailOnline, which is the most visited newspaper website in the world. As of January 2014, the site had over 189.5 million visitors per month, with 11.7 million visitors each day.
In 2011, the paper was covering the appeal of a young woman’s conviction for murder. The initial trial had received a great amount of global media attention and the appeal verdict was being similarly keenly awaited around the world. In order to be first out on the wires, the Daily Mail journalist covering the court case had prepared two versions of their story, one for a guilty verdict and one for not guilty. In the initial confusion of the verdict coming in (not guilty), the paper sent out the wrong version of their release. The article, published on October 3 2011, was live for 90 seconds, after which it was replaced with the article reporting the correct outcome.
A subsequent UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) report expressed concern over what had happened, both with the incorrect verdict going out and with additional elements of the reporting. These elements included quotes attributed to the prosecutors apparently reacting to the guilty verdict and the description of the reaction in the courtroom to the news. The news piece had stated that the defendant had “sank into her chair sobbing uncontrollably while her family and friends hugged each other in tears.” There were also other invented reactions of significant people in the case that were reported as fact.
The newspaper apologised for its mistake, published the correct verdict in print the following day and subsequently changed its practices regarding such ‘set and hold’ stories. The PCC recognised that the newspaper had acted swiftly and proportionately to correct the breach and acknowledged that the story had only been live for a short period of time. However, it remained “particularly concerned” about other aspects of the report, most particularly the fictitious account of what had happened in the courtroom. It stated that the attempt to present contemporaneous reporting of events in such a manner was “clearly not acceptable.”
The reason why I am including this little vignette as a blog? I guess it’s because I just wanted to show that it’s not always the PR professional who deserves bad press.