We recently published a review of a Chicago Tribune story about a vaccine shown to help eliminate precancerous cervical lesions.
Our reviewers were effusive with their praise of the piece, calling it “a very thorough analysis” that “had much to admire, including clear quantification of benefits and an acknowledgment of study dropouts and potential harms.”
But the story’s 4-star score has since been downgraded to 0 stars and we’ve issued a correction to the review.
It turns out this wasn’t a piece of journalism at all, but rather a news release (and a very good one at that) from Johns Hopkins University Kimmel Cancer Center that had been copied verbatim by the Tribune and slapped up on their site as a news story.
There was no disclaimer. In fact, there was no warning to readers at all that this was an institutional news release and not original Tribune journalism.
We were alerted to subterfuge by a reader who noticed the similarities between the two documents. Otherwise, we would have happily gone on thinking that this was a solid piece of journalism.
And that’s a real problem. Because if we — who are going over dozens of news releases and news stories every week — can’t even tell that this was a news release, how is the average reader to know that they’re consuming public relations and not news?
Looking back, the lack of a byline on this story should have been a tip off that the writing wasn’t original.
But we’re busy just like everyone else, and we sometimes gloss over a detail that proves critical in hindsight. We didn’t expect the Tribune to be actively trying to pull one over on its readers.