One of the oldest and most used public relations tools, despite changes in technologies, is still the press release or the news release. These releases include news, feature stories, bulletins, media advisories and announcements which flood media offices. Their purpose is to develop and maintain public goodwill for the organisation as well advocate favourable government policies.
Although many news releases are not successful and do not result in a news story, enough do succeed to ensure that much of the news people read or watch on television is manufactured by PR firms, rather than discovered by journalists. Between 40 and 50 percent of newspaper stories in the US, for example, begin with press releases. Most journalists rely on these sources to supply the raw material of their craft, regular, reliable and useable information. This flow of ‘free’ information saves the journalist time and effort finding stories to write about. Yet it is very difficult for the public to be able to distinguish real news from public relations generated news.
Often news stories are copied straight from news releases, other times they are rephrased and sometimes they are augmented with additional material. For example a study of the Wall Street Journal, a well known and influential newspaper, found that more than half the Journal’s news stories were based entirely on press releases. These stories appeared to be written by the Journal journalists but were hardly changed from the press releases.
This does not vary much between large and small papers as larger papers need more stories and smaller papers have fewer staff to write their stories. According to various studies, press releases are the basis for 40-50 percent of the news content of US newspapers.
News releases do not necessarily go directly to newspapers. Often a public relations service will place it with a wire service first. (Some large agencies have their own wire services.) By 1985, PR Newswire was transmitting 150 stories a day from a pool of 10,000 companies directly into 600 newsrooms belonging to newspapers, radio and television stations. Such stories may be picked up by newsrooms or rewritten by wire services such as AP, Reuters, and Dow Jones. In this way the news release becomes a ‘legitimate’ news story and will be more likely to be taken up by journalists on the newspapers.
Because of global media companies cut back on local journalists, they increasingly depend on news agencies such as Reuters, Bloomberg, the AP, and World Television News to supply news content. Researchers at Cardiff University that 80% of stories in the four most reputable British newspapers, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Independent "were wholly, mainly, or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and press releases. News agency wires are also a critical source for television journalists".
News agencies Reuters (UK), Havas (France) and Wolff (German) formed a "global news cartel," which "maintained rigid control over the transmission of international news stories" through a large part of the 20th Century.