- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Navigating Sources and PR
By Erin Brodwin / 4 minute read
For every journalist, there are approximately six public-relations professionals, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Labor. And that ratio is growing. Two decades ago, there were two PR people for every reporter. Hospital systems, start-ups, and other health-care companies have powerful public-relations machines. Editors and reporters must be able to navigate relationships with PR professionals that include fielding pitches, coordinating interviews, providing an opportunity to comment, and confirming basic facts and figures. Depending on the level of the reporters, it may become part of your job as an editor to help them navigate this relationship.
A first step in many such interactions involves agreeing to an embargo — a request or requirement that whatever information is shared will not be published until a certain date or until certain conditions are met.
Fact: An embargo requires an agreement between the source and the journalist. Just because an email contains “embargoed” information, it shouldn’t be considered binding unless there is written or oral agreement from the reporter. If reporters say something is embargoed, be sure to ask them whether they agreed to it. If they didn’t, you’re not bound by it.
Embargoes can have value, especially when they give journalists time to research a story and develop well-rounded reporting. But increasingly embargoes may contribute to hype or harm.
Here’s an example of an experience I encountered: A public-relations person representing a health-tech start-up and a private university with a respected public-health program emailed me an “embargoed” press release announcing that the start-up would release, within the next 24 hours, a new FDA-authorized Covid-19 test that people could take at home. Regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, however, have repeatedly said in public guidance that they have not yet authorized any at-home tests for Covid-19.
In general, reporters and editors should treat a product announcement the same way they would any other press release: locate evidence backing up the claims. In this case, that evidence is the FDA authorization.
So, what are the issues here?
First, I had not agreed to an embargo, so there was no obligation to hold a story.
Second, recall the earlier discussion about the difference between FDA-authorized and FDA-approved. Be sure to explain distinctions in terminology that readers may not be aware of.
Third, what support was there for these assertions? If such documentation is insufficient (meaning it either can’t be verified or lacks key data) or unavailable, the FDA should be able to verify.
As an editor, if a pitch to write a story based on this release were to come across your desk, there are a few questions you should ask your reporters:
- Is there reason to believe the company will attain authorization by the time the artificial embargo lifts? Why or why not?
- Is the company contributing to unjust hype, and if so, is that worth calling attention to with a story?
- Is the company doing public harm by selling an unauthorized test?
If the answer to the first question is yes, you should consider holding the story until the test is officially authorized. If the answer to either of the second two questions is yes, consider writing a story without respecting the artificial embargo, calling the company out. As an editor, you can help your reporters make this decision, which should also take into account the value of maintaining a relationship with the company, university, and public-relations professional involved.
Another tricky part of the editing-and-reporting process involves choosing what information to share with public-relations professionals and sources before publishing. This may include an overview of the main elements of a story as well as quotes, selected story segments, or individual statements represented as facts.
In health-care writing, quotes can be easily misinterpreted, misattributed, or placed without the proper context. To ensure that a given quote or element of a story is factually accurate, many reporters choose to share certain parts of a story with their sources before the story is published, a practice that has grown more frequent as media outlets eliminate fact-checkers in response to budget cuts.
Increasingly, PR professionals avoid directly connecting reporters with the sources they offer up for interviews, such as clinicians, researchers, analysts, and entrepreneurs. Instead, it is often the PR professional who sets up conference calls, fields emails and calls, and answers follow-up questions and fact-check requests. This is obviously problematic, not just because it makes the process of fact-checking more difficult and may prevent reporters from asking tough questions, but also because it puts an intermediary between you and your source. Encourage reporters to ask PR professionals to directly connect them to their sources.
When a story is negative or critical, it is fairly standard practice to share the basic elements with sources and PR professionals before publication — both to avoid surprising them and to give them a chance to respond to the criticisms. If elements of a critical story are not shared before publication, sources and PR professionals may respond in a threatening or angry manner or avoid sharing important information with the reporter in the future.
Of course, that does not mean that reporters should send an entire story draft to a PR professional or source — doing so could result in vital elements of the story being unjustly removed. Instead, some reporters may want your help choosing which parts of a story to share with sources before publication. Other reporters may be accustomed to handling this process on their own, so be sure to allot a certain amount of time in the editing schedule for this fact-checking and follow-up.
After a story is published, PR professionals or sources may request that something be amended, changed, or removed. Beware: These requests should not always be honored, especially when they do not concern factual information. Sometimes PR people will ask for various components of a story — particularly those that are critical of the company or institution they represent — to be removed, for critical wording to be softened, or even for changes to a source’s quotes. Work with your reporter to assess these requests and to focus on any errors rather than on personal preferences or other spurious requests.