A CBS affiliate in Los Angeles appears to have copied substantial portions of an article about a creationist’s lawsuit against California State University, Northridge. Sentences and entire paragraphs seem to have been lifted directly from a press release of the Pacific Justice Institute, the conservative legal foundation that filed the lawsuit.
The case concerns the termination of Mark Armitage, an electron microscopy technician and young earth creationist, who was employed at CSUN from 2010 to 2013.
Armitage claimed to have found soft tissue in a triceratops horn, which is rare for fossils. Armitage and other creationists think this disproves the fact that the genus went extinct during the K-Pg extinction, over 65 million years ago and proves that the earth itself is very young. Of course, it does no such thing.
According to PJI’s wrongful termination suit, he was fired either because of his religion (the complaint features cartoonish atheist villains shouting lines like “We’re not going to tolerate your religion!”) or to suppress his scientific “breakthrough” (which had already been published).
CBS-LA’s article on this story was remarkably credulous, regurgitating PJI’s claims without any scientific scrutiny or outside commentary, and only reporting that university claims he was a temporary employee.
But even more troubling, from a journalistic standpoint, was that this was not merely one-sided reporting: the article appears to have been framed entirely using PJI’s own words and press release.
Certain instances appear to skirt the line, copying the press release verbatim but with an attribution to a PJI attorney tacked on at the end of a sentence. In some cases, a few words were changed, and in others, the texts are almost identical.
CBSLA.com: “While at the Hell Creek Formation excavation site in Montana, researcher Mark Armitage discovered what he believed to be the largest triceratops horn ever unearthed at the site, according to attorney Brad Dacus of Pacific Justice Institute. Upon examination of the horn under a high-powered microscope back at CSUN, Dacus says Armitage was “fascinated” to find soft tissue on the sample – a discovery Bacus [sic] said stunned members of the school’s biology department and even some students “because it indicates that dinosaurs roamed the earth only thousands of years in the past rather than going extinct 60 million years ago.”
PacificJustice.org: “While at a dig at Hell Creek formation in Montana, the scientist, Mark Armitage, came upon the largest triceratops horn ever unearthed at the site. When examining the horn under a high-powered microscope back at CSUN, Armitage was fascinated to see the soft tissue. The discovery stunned members of the scientific community because it indicates that dinosaurs roamed the earth only thousands of years in the past rather than going extinct 60 million years ago.”
CBSLA.com: “According to court documents, shortly after the original soft tissue discovery, a CSUN official told Armitage, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!””
PacificJustice.org: “According to court documents, shortly after the original soft tissue discovery, a university official challenged the motives of Armitage, by shouting at him, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!””
Even more clear is that an overview of both posts shows how the press release forms the framework for the entire article.
While we can debate how close to the line reporters can go when it comes to appropriate citation, it seems clear that this reporting falls far short of the norms we expect from journalistic practice.
If you’re going to simply republish a press release, you owe it your readers to put it in block quotes and link to the source, not cut-and-paste some sentences and pass it off as original reporting. The article contains little original content and no critical commentary. It uses others’ words profligately, is littered with typos, and appears sloppy and biased throughout. It did, however, generate tons of traffic for CBSLA.com, with over 7,300 shares on Facebook.
I imagine a lot of lawyers would like to co-write the reporting about their own lawsuits, but reporters should know better than to allow their organizations to be used as almost literal mouthpieces for one side of an issue. We expect them to investigate claims independently and present their results fairly, even when it conflicts with their personal beliefs. It’s not the easiest way to do journalism–it is the only way. Reporting-by-press release is for tabloid rags.
CBS-LA editors said they would look into the matter, but declined to comment in time for this story. Any response will be published below.