Newspapers Lift Wire Stories, But May Miss the Best of the Original Story

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Journalists already know this, but many news consumers may not. What you read in your local newspaper or its website may be a considerably-shortened version of a story that was written by someone in another city who put a lot more work into the original than what you see. Here’s an example of what can happen and how readers of health news may not be well served by the practice.

We recently reviewed a story published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a new drug for macular degeneration. But the story was a version of a story written by a reporter for the Charlotte Observer.

The story did not get a favorable review; it was rated unsatisfactory on nine criteria with a score of "not applicable" on a tenth criteria. So it got a score of zero stars.

We always send e-mails to reporters whose stories are reviewed, so we wrote to the Charlotte reporter. She claimed that what we reviewed was a very short version of her original story. She said that many of the things we said were missing in the Pittsburgh story were available in the original story.

We checked and, indeed, the Charlotte paper originally ran two stories on macular degeneration on September 17 – one on the front page and one on page 20. The two stories totaled more than 1,500 words. But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a version that only ran about 500 words, about a third of the material in the original version.

What do you lose when you chop 1,500 words down to 500? In this case, the shorter story didn’t contain information the longer story had on:

  • Cost. The drug costs about $2,000 per monthly dose.
  • Other options. "What if an off-label drug, Avastin, could do the same thing for $50 per dose?" (a question raised in the original story)
  • Whether the drug is approved by the FDA (It is.)
  • How big is the potential benefit? ("The drug halted vision loss in 95 percent of patients.")
  • How is it administered? (The drug is not taken orally; it is injected into the eyeball – something prospective patients would want to know.)

These are all things we look for as we review stories. And they weren’t there in the version that readers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got. And for many Americans, a local newspaper is their main source of news. I doubt that many people in Pittsburgh read the Charlotte paper.

The Pittsburgh paper was one that we happened to be reviewing on that particular day. We review the top 50 papers each week, but only 10 each day on a rotating basis. On that day, Pittsburgh was in our rotation, not Charlotte.

Many newsrooms talk a great deal about transparency these days. Perhaps because of many recent journalism ethics disasters, and perhaps because of declining circulation in many cities, many news organizations feel they have to do a better job of explaining their decision-making processes to the public.

As part of that transparency, perhaps newsrooms need to do a better job of explaining how they lift material off wire services and often don’t include all of the original material. That is why we listed the Pittsburgh paper as the source of the story we reviewed, not the Charlotte paper. An independent judgment was made in the Pittsburgh newsroom about what to run, how much to run, and what to leave out.

In tough economic times, many newsrooms may be investigating and reporting fewer local enterprise stories while filling the news hole with more pickups from wire services and from other, less journalistically-sound sources (industry news releases, for example). In many newsrooms, staffs are being cut so fewer people are being asked to do more with less.

Shortcuts may save in the short-term but cost dearly in the long run, especially when accuracy, balance and completeness are at stake.

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