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How press releases work

By chief hack Ignatius Rake

Posted August 07, 2012
most news stories are regurgitated press releases
Read all about it! Twenty coffin nails and a load of regurgitated press releases, please. (Check bottom for credit)

You can trust the news because it's independently researched, right?

Yesterday we ran a story about the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) entitled Sod the Olympics, drink down Olympia.

The story was based on a press release issued by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the GBBF's organiser.

However, if you're not into beer, you may well have not read it and therefore missed some important information concerning the mainstream media and its relationship with press releases.

We are therefore reposting the pertinent points here so that you don't miss out as a result of you not being into beer.

Although I strongly urge you to start getting into beer as soon as possible because it's ace.

But that's another matter.

Anyway, the press release we received started off with some bumpf about a survey that named Daley Thompson, a medal-winning athlete from the 1980s, as the British sporting hero the nation's pub-goers would most like to share a pint with down the pub.

As we really couldn't care less about athletics or the Olympics, we chose not to lead with this and instead jumped right into the meat about the GBBF itself.

Other publications, however, lapped the Thompson bit up big time, which prompted us to pen the second half of the article, which was as follows...

Most people who don't work in the 'news industry' quite understandably assume that the news they read, hear or see is the product of journalists researching stories and then writing them up themselves.

This is kinda true for about 12-15% of the news at best.

The rest of it, the vast majority, (if not simply recycled from other publications) comes either from press agencies (official state/government jobbies or commercial newswires like Reuters) or from press releases issued by individuals or organisations.

Given the various physical and time constraints put on journalists, this isn't that surprising.

Besides, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with press releases and as a hack I'm very grateful for them.

After all, how else are individuals or organisations expected to get their news out?

Phone round every single news desk on the planet?

Or hope that a hack will just spontaneously knock at the door?

Likewise, can a journalist really be expected to know telepathically that some person or organisation somewhere has just done something newsworthy and they should get on the blower to them pronto?

For the news consumer, though, the use of press releases has some major ramifications.

You see, once a press release is received by a journalist it is either binned; re-written; perhaps elaborated upon; or, very, very often, simply spewed out verbatim while still being passed off as objective news reporting.

more newspapers
Rag racks: Who needs hacks when you've got press releases? (Check bottom for credit)

Of course, the information contained within a press release may well trigger a subsequent independent investigation that then falls into the 12-15% bracket previously mentioned.

Or it might simply be used to pad out another related story.

All too often, though, it is the verbatim route that is taken, with the only change made being the addition of a byline to make it look like the 'story' was researched and then written by a hack when the fact is it was not.

Usually, they don't even bother to change the original headline kindly provided by the person (probably working for a PR firm1) who wrote the press release in the first place.

The thing is, while not intrinsically bad, press releases are by their very nature subjective.

Their sole purpose is to promote the interest(s) of the person or organisation that wrote (or more likely commissioned someone else to write) the said release.

Strange that but true.

When the press release is about, say, a beer festival, there's not really that much to worry about.

When the press release is issued by, say, a government, a political party, a supranational organisation, a pressure group, a religious body or some big business interest, the same is not so.

But by and large it will still be unquestioningly repeated by the bulk of the mainstream media as news when in fact it is at best a heavily biased advertorial or blatant piece of political or ideological propaganda.

The CAMRA press release (which we clearly rewrote and even elaborated on a bit) followed a classic formula: an interesting 'hook' (Daley Thompson apparently being the sporting hero most British pub-goers would like to drink with down the pub) followed a few paragraphs later by the actual message, the 'meat', that the issuer wants to get across (in this case that the GBBF will start on August 7 and run until August 11).

Now open the following links in separate tabs by clicking here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Notice anything?

To learn more about how the bulk of the news palmed off as objective reporting is anything but, get a job as a hack.

Or have a read of Flat Earth News by Nick Davis of the Gruniad.

Personally, I don't reckon Davis goes far enough and he definitely pulls a few punches in typical Gruniad fashion, but otherwise it's a well-written starting point for exploring this disturbing subject, a subject about which anyone who watches, reads or listens to the news anywhere should be aware.

We strongly urge you to buy Flat Earth News in a book shop but failing that you can also get it here.

Another essential book is Scared to Death by Torygraph columnist Christopher Booker and political analyst Dr Richard North.

Again, please try to buy it in a real book shop but if you can't here's a link.

The Rake & Herald always seeks to make it clear in the text of a story when a press release is being used. Likewise, we will never knowingly spew out a press release verbatim and then pass it off as something we have written ourselves. Unless of course we change our minds. In which case we'll issue a press release.

See also Sod the Olympics, drink down Olympia, posted 6/8/12.


1) The cosy relationship between the media and PR firms (not to mention lobbyists, pressure groups, governments and political parties, big business/advertisers, the military and the intelligence services) is yet another issue of which news consumers should be aware.

Photo credits

Top and thumb: A newsstand in Noi Yoik by Andrew Smith.

Bottom: Bum wad for sale by Matthew Pack.

For licensing information click the above links.

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