Consumer group recycles same quotes

PIRG press releases do it routinely

April 07, 2001|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,SUN STAFF

Maryland Public Interest Research Group's recent press release on the deceptive practices of credit-card issuers wasn't quite upfront, either.

The release quotes several local people on the abuses by credit-card issuers. But similar releases issued by nonprofit Public Interest Research Groups in other parts of the country have the same or very similar quotes attributed to people in those areas.

Some journalism experts question the practice of recycling quotes.

But PIRG officials said the practice is done routinely by them as a way to localize a press release on a tight budget.

In the Maryland press release, Cheryl Hystad, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, states: "Credit-card companies aren't satisfied with a fair profit, so they're hitting consumers with interest rates as high as 30% APR."

In Washington, Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, says: "Credit card companies aren't satisfied with a fair profit, so they're gouging consumers with outrageous interest rates as high as 30% APR."

Mierzwinski's quote is repeated verbatim by other PIRG staff in Massachusetts, Ohio and Colorado.

"It's called message discipline. It's the way we release our reports around the country," said Mierzwinski with the nonprofit group. PIRG officials write a draft release and send it to its local offices and to others. "We provide them ... with some suggested things to say, which is what everybody does."

Some journalism experts said they have never heard of replicating quotes.

"It's not exactly the right thing to do," said Edwin O. Guthman, a 1950 Pulitzer Prize winner and a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California School of Journalism in Los Angeles. He said the practice may be acceptable if people attributed to the quotes had revised them and agreed with the statements, but, "It would have been better if they had done their own thing."

"This sort of wholesale recycling and localizing of the same quote is not an especially good idea," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Press releases are already held in low regard among journalists, because it's hard to know if there is anything genuine in them, Kunkel said. "This reinforces to reporters that there were many hands behind it and the people who were quoted are the least of it," he said.

Charles B. Shafer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, also was quoted in the MaryPIRG release using similar phrasing as others. He and Hystad said they were given a draft of the press release and told they could revise or add to the quotes, which both said they did. They said they know little about writing press releases and assumed it was standard practice.

Hystad said that to get local media interested in a national topic it helps to have local sources quoted in a press release. "I wouldn't put my name on something that I didn't agree with," said Hystad, adding there was no intention to deceive anyone.

"We're little people with not a lot of money. We're facing a credit card industry that makes millions of dollars, that sends out billions of things," said Shafer. "We can't have a high-priced PR operation as they can. It's plain and simple."

And that's PIRG's position. "We who are fighting for the public interest are terribly outgunned. We have very little funding," said Dan Shawham of MaryPIRG, adding that he thinks there's nothing wrong with the quote practice.

"The quotes were written for all of us to use. It's not like we are ripping off a quote from someone else," he said.

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