“Lifting press releases verbatim and publishing them without attribution is a sin against readers. It is a violation of the public trust that media love to talk about. It gives the impression that the paper is not an independent voice. It calls into question every other story in the paper.”
That was the strong admonition outlined by Allan Wolper, who writes the “Ethics Corner” column for the prestigious Editor and Publisher magazine titled “Keepers of the Public Trust.”
Wolper’s comments were part of his column discussing accusations against former Kansas City Star columnist Steve Penn, who was fired by the McClatchy-owned paper in July of last year for publishing press releases verbatim in his column. The newspaper says that Penn, a Metro columnist and reporter at the paper for more than 30 years, had used PR copy at least a dozen times since 2008.
Penn is now suing the newspaper for defamation and claims that copying press releases without attribution was “widely done by various reporters at the Star.” Wolper notes that the Star’s Code of Ethics takes a strong stand against plagiarism and the Star is not likely to work out a settlement of the case.
Wolper, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University and host of the ”Conversations with Allan Wolper” NPR radio show based in New York, says if “Penn’s allegations, if proven, would seriously damage the credibility of the Star.”
Both John Landsberg at Bottom Line Communications and a frequent poster to his site, Rick Nichols, were quoted in the column. Landsberg noted that from a PR standpoint press releases are meant to be copied and that he would never complain about having his copy lifted. As a former journalist, Landsberg writes releases to make it as easy as possible for the new media to use them.
In response to a story on this site, Nichols questioned if Penn had been plagiarizing information for so long, why was he never disciplined by Star management earlier?
Wolper also asks the question, “Who blew the whistle on Penn?” Not all the answers are known about Penn’s actions or the Star’s, but Wolper says if Penn pushes his lawsuit the case will very likely be heading to court.
“Why? Because the Star will not want to settle the case. That would be seen as a tacit admission that Penn was right when he claimed that he wasn’t the only one pilfering public relations copy.”