Who's Byline is it Anyway?

This Wednesday I received an e-mail with attached article just before noon from our PR firm, the gist of which was: “We’ve authored an article with your byline and could you review it quickly because it has to be submitted to the editor by 5:00pm today.” Talk about a different world!
When I was a practicing scientist, ‘it’ was all about authoring scientific papers and the rules were and are still very strict: only say what you have data to backup; if you speculate make it clear that you are doing so and restrict speculation to the Discussion section; and most importantly, make sure you fully reference and attribute any work of others.
When I used to manage public relations for Allelix Biopharmaceuticals, I learned to write news releases; the style is very different than scientific papers of course. Interestingly there are always included quotations from some senior executive: “We are extremely pleased about blah, blah, blah.” Now if you’ve ever thought that was what the executive said, think again. It is what the release author thinks the executive should say if anyone asked them. And many times in an early draft one person, such as the CEO is supposed to have said it, but in the final release a VP or someone else gets the attribution.
None of this really matters since most of the time the beautiful release becomes a two- or three-line filler in a magazine or newspaper, and the quotation goes unused. As an aside, that’s why the title of a news release has to make the key point, and the first paragraph has to say everything that is really important. Then subsequent paragraphs say it again in a bit more detail, and then finally there is a quotation or two. Sometimes reporters will actually use a quotation from a release. Apparently it is OK to write a column which makes it sound like you actually interviewed the person by using that quotation even if you never did.
A few weeks ago I heard a radio show discussing how the quality of journalism is declining because under deadline pressure journalists are more often using material from company releases almost verbatim. Well I guess over the years I’ve done my little bit to grease the skids…
Not to say that is true of all journalists – I’ve given interviews over the years where they actually used something I said in the interview in the final article; not always correctly mind you, but hey…
So what did I do with that story with a 5:00 deadline? I dropped what I was doing, rewrote a good chunk of it and sent it back to our PR firm. By the way, much of the article was taken from other articles that I had written, so it was mostly my stuff. But then we get into another issue, I was trained never to publish the same thing in two different journals. But apparently that doesn’t apply in the world I’m in now…

No comments:

Post a Comment