Press releases are emailed into newspapers at an ever-increasing rate, not that this is necessarily a good thing, dear readers.
Every week, The Munster Express newsroom receives hundreds, if not thousands of emails, a great deal of them deemed irrelevant considering where it is we circulate.
Those looking over the fence might think that such a ready-made source of information is manna to a story-hungry reporter eager to impress ‘the chief’. Well, that’s not always the case.
The ‘out and about’ nature of the job, especially in the two days before this paper goes to press, rarely comes into play. There’s simply no time for meeting and greeting. There’s a paper to be filled and the reporter’s brief is to help fill it.
And while there are some exceptions to the rule, especially in the event of a breaking story, Vitamin A ingestion is generally left until Wednesday at earliest.
Some have suggested that the modern Irish newsperson has fallen victim to vampirism since they only seem to operate ‘in the field’ at night, but fear not, many of us embrace both religion and garlic.
The lot of the modern journalist, be one local or national, is to be deskbound for a good deal more time than non-bylining types might imagine. It’s part of the ‘evolving newsroom culture’, so sounds the current media analysis drum.
Of course it’s important to note that press releases regularly provide leads which reporters can mould and develop into an actual story, rather than whatever the press releaser is attempting to pedal.
The better written press releases, in my experience, tend to be the ones where those responsible for the press release aren’t trying to sell you something. Believe it or not, there are bodies out there that do actually act in the public interest without being political.
Take the Environmental Protection Agency for example, a body directed to, well, protect the environment.
Their press releases are never flashy, never carry celebrity endorsements and, at least from my frequent inspections, have yet to feature an over-photographed, eyebrow arching Dublin model.
Last week, the EPA issued a Remedial Action List for Public Water Drinking Supplies, which, as the rather wordy title indicates, contained a comprehensive list of 339 public water supplies which required “examination from source to consumer”.
This list had been compiled to “determine whether replacements or upgrades were needed (to the listed supply sources) or whether operational practices should be improved”. So I got busy reading.
As I ran my finger through the supplies listed in the areas of greatest concern to this newspaper, I feared for the next time I’d turn on a tap.
The alarm bells were well and truly ringing by the time I tallied that as many as 66,752 people were living within the ‘at-risk’ local supplies referenced on this list.
And then, for a couple of moments, I daydreamed; fans of ‘Scrubs’ will be familiar with what this entails. Those who are not will remember what you did to pass the time during honours maths.
Had this been a US EPA press release, one can imagine the knee-jerk reaction of career obsessed TV news reporters.
Within minutes of this ‘sensational development’, a White House spokesman would surely have had the phrase “war on water” rolling off a set of increasingly-arid lips.
If not, the reporter would have asked the duty-obliged H, 2 and O-loaded question and claimed that was the Oval Office’s official position anyway and that the President was on the brink of ordering Defcon 1.
As I snapped back to reality, part of me was thinking “this sounds like a great story,” as long as I didn’t cramp up and kick the bucket before I could work E.coli into a headline.
But since I wasn’t an expert and really couldn’t make complete sense of the list’s details all on my lonesome, I called officials in both local authorities as well as the EPA for a little consultation.
And lo and behold, thanks to their patience in dealing with my lengthy list of questions, I discovered that I wouldn’t be washing my spuds in poison that evening.
Yes, there are some deficiencies in supplies, and to suggest otherwise wouldn’t represent a true and accurate picture. Many of the problems that the list attributes to Waterford city and county have already been remedied.
But that didn’t stop a national newspaper using “Water for 1.25 million people is unsafe” as a headline last Friday – which would have been the equivalent of my stating “Water for 66,752 people is unsafe” in this week’s edition.
Strictly speaking, given the details provided by the press release, that national headline wasn’t inaccurate, yet it didn’t reflect the reality on the ground or, should I say, in the pipes.
While journalists have a duty to report the facts, we have a duty to do so responsibly, and we must never lose sight of that.