Editing and genre conflict: How newspaper journalists clarify and neutralize press release copy

Henk Pander Maat

Abstract

Although corporate press releases are ‘preformulated’ to fit some of the conventions of journalistic reports, their style at times seems quite different from the one favoured by journalists. That is, there appear to exist stylistic conflicts between the press release genre and the press report genre. This study investigates the nature of these conflicts by means of a corpus analysis of the reworking strategies employed by journalists that actually use press releases to compose press reports. Roughly, two orientations can be discerned behind the journalistic transformations of release copy: Readability and neutrality. In order to improve readability, journalists create shorter and less complex sentences, use everyday words, replace numbers and symbols by words, and insert short bits of background information. In order to preserve neutrality, they remove company and product names, tone down or remove positive statements, and introduce the company as source for statements they do not want to be responsible for. Some transformations are more complex in that they are carried out in both directions: For instance, the company name may be removed as the subject in a press report sentence, but in other cases it may be introduced in the press report. These two-way operations are shown to be sensitive to different orientations at the same time. For instance, removing company names from the subject position may help preserve neutrality, while introducing it may personalize the text and hence improve readability. In the discussion, the genre conflict between press releases and press reports is analyzed in terms of the incompatibility of the stylistic constraints both genres need to satisfy. Some of the incompatibilities derive from differences in the communicative purposes characteristic of the two genres, while others probably have to do with the specific organizational context that co-determines the style of press releases.

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