Is it Plagiarism to Quote from a News Release?

by Dan Ward

A Poynter Institute report caught my eye today regarding a lawsuit filed by Steve Penn against his former employer, McClatchy Newspapers. Penn was fired last year by the Kansas City Star for “using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own work.”

But he wasn’t accused of copying and reprinting other journalists’ work as his own. He was essentially accused of plagiarism because he lifted copy directly from news releases he had received, and printed this information without attribution.

I’m proud to say that copy from many Curley & Pynn news releases has been “lifted” by reporters over the years. At times, our releases have run virtually verbatim in major news outlets. I’ve often thanked reporters for such coverage. Never once have I thought to accuse them of plagiarism.

If the Star had a written policy that required attribution of information pulled from news releases, then they were likely justified in firing Penn. But attribution or not, I have a hard time understanding how using a news release to build a story is tantamount to plagiarism.

When I clip a coupon from the newspaper and use it to save money on a purchase, that’s not stealing. I’m using the coupon for its intended purpose. The same is true of any reporter who uses a news release to build his or her story.

11 Responses to Is it Plagiarism to Quote from a News Release?

  1. Doreen says:

    Interesting story, thanks for sharing. I read that he’s suing because he said it was common practice at the paper. I agree with your assertion, however, I was surprised that he was a *columnist* doing this. I think as a columnist, it’s understood that the ideas, words and views are your own.

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks, Doreen. I agree that could be an area of distinction, and I’m not necessarily standing up for Penn. Not sure the Star made that distinction, though.

  3. Roger Pynn says:

    I’m not sure it matters whether he was a reporter or a columnist (although, if anything, a columnist ought to have greater latitude than a reporter) … but in the end it seems that attribution has become a lost art to most media; they make statements of “fact” from history all the time without atribution. His money would be better spent on a career consultant than an attorney.

  4. Lauren says:

    You have represented plagiarism as merely an intellectual property issue. Old literary works are long out of copyright; that doesn’t give you the right to pass them off as your own writing. The mistake is in presuming that the offense of plagiarism is merely against the original author. It’s not. It’s a deceit of the audience. In the context of journalism, I’d argue that copying PR without attribution is WORSE than copying the words of another journalist, because if the public is being misled to think that information came from a journalist (ie, independently verified) when in reality it came from an interested party and hasn’t been verified, then the public is twice deceived. The fact that PR reps love to have their words copypasted as “the news” should tell anyone how wrong it is to pass it off as journalism. PR reps are not journalists; they represent interested parties. At least if it came from another journalist, assuming they were anybody worth plagiarizing in the first place, the information that was copied was at least journalism, not PR. I doubt you’d find a single journalism professor who would consider not attributing press release excerpts as ethical.

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