Is it plagiarism for a journalist to use press release copy?

July 6, 2012

Steve Penn, a former Kansas City Star staffer who was fired for plagiarism in July of 2011 after using press release copy in more than a dozen of his columns, is now suing McClatchy Newspapers, the Star’s owner, asking for $25,000 plus punitive damages. As reports, Penn’s legal complaint argues that “widespread practice in journalism is to treat such releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors … with the intention that the release will be reprinted or republished … with no or minimal editing.”
Penn says that copying from press releases was always allowed at the Star and that he was fired because the paper’s management failed to make clear that a shift in policy had occurred, and then a supervisor decided to make an example of him. By calling his work plagiarism, the paper damaged his professional reputation and caused him to lose job opportunities, Penn says.

In a column about the death of a restaurateur, Penn reportedly took entire portions from a funeral parlor’s release, and in another column he wrote a lead sentence identical to one in a press release. According to, another of Penn’s columns repeated nearly an entire release about aid to U.S. veterans. In an informal poll on the site, 57 percent of respondents said it is acceptable for reporters to use press release copy in their stories, as long as the material is attributed. Sixteen percent thought it’s all right without attribution, while 11 percent said the practice is acceptable only when the copy is rewritten. Thirteen percent said that using press release copy is lazy, and 3 percent called it plagiarism. — Greg Beaubien 


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