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Chicago Tribune repost of news release sets new low for churnalism

Thumbs downWe 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.

Why?

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.

Caveat lector.

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Comments (5)

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Paul Raeburn

October 5, 2015 at 8:52 am

A couple of points: The story now indicates at the top that it was from Newswise, a public information outfit. Was that there initially? If so, that doesn’t justify reprinting a press release by any means, but that should have been picked up by your reviewer, and it would be something to watch for in the future. I’m guessing, though, that it was added after your critique.

Also, and here’s my cheap shot–whoever added info on the story’s source doesn’t know the definition of the word “append.” As I say, that’s a cheap shot. But still…ya gotta wonder.

    Kevin Lomangino

    October 5, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Paul,

    The “appendage” to this story most certainly was not there when we originally reviewed the piece. Thanks for pointing it out to us.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor

Linda Pifer

October 5, 2015 at 9:12 am

I wish you would review a paper recently appearing in Proc. NTl. Acad. of Sci. That published results of study funded by a group convinced that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The results showed the exact opposite. People need to know this in view of the damage caused by Wakefield. Thanks!

    darwinslapdog

    October 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    @Linda Pifer
    Check out sciencebasedmedicine.org for a thorough trouncing of what I’d guess is the same study.

Lee J. Siegel

October 5, 2015 at 11:41 am

AS a PIO, I see far too many releases picked up verbatim on the web. If sites are clearly aggregator sites and say so, fine. But when a newspaper runs a news release verbatim — horrible. But what is much more frequent and just about as poor for journalism are media outlets that take news releases and do cursory rewrites without ever interviewing the researcher(s) involved. I see it all the time.