Linking press release to story when non-obvious

tn_question.jpg  If I, as the reader-and-citizen-journalist suspected that a particular story originated from a press release, how could I verify this, and find out what group put out the press release?  (and, in an ideal world, see the original press release?)

It should be quite easy to answer this question because under normal circumstances any group that issues a press release want credit and the newspaper generally wants to cite or quote from the release.

But that must not be the case here and, indeed, citizen journalists who are competing with local media and perhaps playing the outsider’s role akin to that of an alternative weekly, may suspect that news is being fed to the establishment and withheld from the opposition. And this could be true. Newsmakers — local government officials or business leaders or other community bigshots — have relationships with newspaper editors and reporters. Newsmakers often feed stories to these trusted media — whether this is good, bad or indifferent let history and/or God judge. But the citizen journalist could easily be seen as the troublemaker and get left out by mutual consent of the local power structure and its overly-cozy friends at the local paper. 

Catching covert press releases should be simple. Grab a section of the suspect story and put this text string into a search engine in quotes, to signift that you are seeking an exact phrase. If the text was lifted out of a press release the search engine should find it. Alternately if the reader/citizen journalist suspects that a particular group issued the press release but the search engine trick doesn’t reveal it, perhaps the newspaper paraphrased a release. So check the web sites of suspect news-makers – most of the times a government agency or even a private business eventually posts the complete text of a press release. Then the citizen journalist can see it as well, even if later.

Now here’s a wrinkle. What if there never is or was a press release. What if the news story were based on a leak. Say the county administrative officer calls a reporter and says, here is some stuff you cannot attribute to me? And then the newspaper uses this as a basis for a story. The citizen journalist is hosed. You can’t track or trace the information. This is one reason why I dislike the use of anonymous sources. Anyone who ever tells a reporter anything has an axe to grind or a reason to speak. Identifying the speaker is a vital part of the information. Anyhow, lots of reporters get all mushy when talking about anonymous sources and consider these nameless ones the wellspring of investigative journalism. I believe that to be true so rarely as to make most of the utterances bunk. Most anonymous quotes are reported by reporters too lazy or too timid to demand that their sources either put up (their names) or shut up.

But that’s my pet peeve.

 Back to the problem at hand, if the stories of concern emanate from leaks, take a deep breath. There is nothing you can do. But what about public meeting laws, you might say? Okay, there are such things that govern public officials but they generally know how to stay on the safe side of the law. Don’t waste your energy trying to expose their favoritism. Devote your time and talents to telling the real story that you see because that is the great but sutble power of the pen that you do possess. You can create the true and persuasive account that will draw readers to your point of view. Thing if it as a form of magnetism. You are creating some set of ideas to draw the like-minded to you. In no way are you creating a sort of thought ray that will seek out wrongheaded ideas and change them. I’ve been writing a long time — almost 16 years in daily newspapers and twice that with my prior adult experience — and I can’t recall ever having changed a single mind. But I have exposed many, many people to new ideas or shown them how to find others who believe as they do.

So for now if you are the citizen/reader up against an entrenched media/government cabal cultivate a sense of humor. Imagine that your media adversaries are covering Rome back in the day of Nero, and their spoon-fed news will start to read like this: “A marvelous melody was heard emanating from the imperial balcony last night.” You prose will have more punch: “Fire scourged the seven hills of Rome last night.”

Now who are them Romans gonna read and believe?