Here we look at media releases and how journalists can get the best out of them.
One of the main sources of news for journalists is the media release (sometimes called the press release). This is often a news story or feature, written by a press officer or information officer and sent to each newspaper and broadcasting station.
It is easy to understand why media releases are so important. Each newsroom may have only a few reporters to find out what is going on in the country. There is a limit to how much news these few people can find.
At the same time, there may be a great many press officers, information officers and even marketing staff employed by government departments, by statutory bodies, by universities, by large commercial firms and by many others. If all these people are prepared to tell reporters what is going on in their organisations, it helps the flow of information.
Some journalists, however, believe that media releases should take all the work away from them; they treat media releases as if they were finished stories, ready to be published in the paper or read out over the air.
They are very wrong to believe that. You should never use a media release in the form you receive it, without a great deal of thought and work. Let us consider why not.
Who wrote it and why?
Press officers, who write media releases, are employed by organisations to project a good image - to make sure that good news about them gets told and that bad news about them is kept to a minimum. There is nothing wrong with that, and it does mean that a lot of good news, which might otherwise never get published at all, finds its way to the readers and listeners.
All the same, it does mean that the reason why they wrote the media release was to promote the good image of their employer. Do not imagine that it was written because they were anxious about you having enough stories to fill tonight's bulletin or tomorrow's paper. While the media release should still be truthful, it may not contain the whole truth - it will probably contain a careful selection of facts to show the organisation in the best possible light.The essential difference between the press officer and the reporter is that, while the press officer represents the interests of his or her employer, the reporter represents the interests of the readers or listeners. Remember that and make sure that the story which you put through to your chief of staff contains answers to the questions which your readers or listeners want answered, not just the things the press officer wants to tell them.
Bear in mind, too, that the clever press officer will send a media release when there is usually not much other news around - on a Sunday, for example, to make it more likely that you will use it in the Sunday evening bulletin or the Monday morning newspaper. Take special care at these times to do a proper assessment of the news value of the media release.
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How to handle a media release
Read and visualise
It is not enough to read the first sentence of a media release before deciding whether to use it. You need to read it all and visualise the story. This is the most important skill of journalism, to visualise what happened, when, where, why and how and who was involved. You must do it when you read a media release as much as you do while you are interviewing somebody.
Is it news?
Just because a press officer has sent out a media release, it does not mean that there is a real news story there. They may be trying to impress their employers with how much work they do; they may be trying to get free publicity; they may be so close to their organisation that things seem important to them which are of little or no interest to the rest of society.
Treat the media release in the same way as any other source of news - ask yourself whether the information it contains is new, unusual, interesting, significant, and whether it is about people. If the answer is no, then throw it away.
Does it have the right news angle?
There may be a better news story buried late in the media release than the one in the intro; the press officer's job is to promote his employer, not to pick what is objectively most newsworthy. That is your job, so do it.
What information is missing?
If there are gaps in the story as you try to visualise it, it means that information is missing. If you decide to use the story, you will need to fill in these gaps.
Contact for further information
Good media releases should contain a name and phone number of who to contact for more information - usually the press officer who wrote it. If there are gaps in the story, phone them and put the questions.
If you do not get answers, try someone else in the organisation. While you are talking to them, tell them that the press officer could not help - you will find that they will co-operate better with you next time, to avoid people hearing that they are not doing their job properly.
Write the story from all available information
Only when you have done all these things can you write the story, from the material in the media release and from your notes of your telephone or personal interviews.
All this takes more time than simply publishing a media release as you receive it, but it is time well spent. It will make your newspaper, radio or television station one which the readers or listeners know they can trust, rather than one which just repeats other people's propaganda.
Do not be rushed into publishing a media release before you have assessed it. If it arrives just before your deadline, it may be better to hold it for the next issue of the newspaper or the next bulletin than to use it at once. All the same, you should assess it as quickly as possible, so that it does not lie around the newsroom growing old, while the public would be interested to know what it contains.
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A media release is not sacred. It is just one source of news (and an imperfect one), so do not be in awe of it.
The man or woman who wrote it is probably not a better journalist than you are, so have the self-confidence to question their news judgment and to reject it if you disagree. However, do not reject the facts contained in a media release just because you don't like them; if you are in doubt, check them.
You will find, though, that some media releases will need no rewriting. There are some very good, experienced journalists working as press officers. After you have read, visualised and assessed a media release, you may decide that you cannot improve upon it - in that case, don't waste your time. Leave it as it is, give it back to your chief of staff and tell him that it can be used as it is.
Treat a media release like any source of news. Check to see if it contains anything which is
- interesting or significant
- about people
Gather any other information you need to write a complete story.
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