USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

A New Form of Overload: P.R. Spam
How Interactive is Online Journalism?
A New Form of Overload: P.R. Spam
Reaching the Press Online (A Few Choice Sites)
P.R. E-mail Tips

It used to be fun to read my e-mail. That was back in the old days -- the ancient days -- when I crawled through AOL at 14.4 on a black-and-white 486, one of a few hundred thousand subscribers. My e-mail was used for recreation then. Hidden behind the pseudonym of my e-mail address, I heard regularly from friends in former Soviet bloc countries and occasionally participated in a listserve. The point was, nobody could find me unless I wanted them to.

But these days, I am a member of the media, and my e-mail address is public domain. Anyone who knows my name can reach me by following a simple, company-wide pattern for addresses, and anyone less savvy can seek me out at our company staff directory. As a result, my e-mail address at work is crammed with more mail than I could ever hope for -- or want.

Unsolicited messages, or spam, are a problem for anyone with an active e-mail account (Time magazine has estimated that they account for more than 15% of all Internet mail), but for those of us who make the exchange of information our profession -- and who rely upon the easy transfer of messages -- it can be even more frustrating.

The dizzying pace of technology means that computers can aid in the analysis and dissemination; copiers and mail merge can facilitate the cheap and efficient distribution of reports; word processors and faxes can simplify the sending out of publicity materials. But technology that was meant to ease time constraints and simplify lives can actually result in a flood of information to the desks of members of the media. Add to this the time journalists spend responding to floods of queries and complaints by members of the public, and it can be difficult for them to find the time to do their real jobs -- writing and editing.

Within the context of this information overload arrives a new breed of unsolicited messages, commercial and noncommercial, targeted at the media, remarkable largely because of the credentials of their recipients. Instead of the nude girls, get-rich-quick schemes and medical miracles I am offered on a daily basis at my personal address, my inbox at work is filled with a sophisticated version of spam. "Spotted you on the 'Net and don't know if you are interested," the messages often begin. "You work for a newspaper..."; "Your e-mail address was obtained from a list of world media."

Mining lists that are already available online, P.R. reps send sophisticated press releases to introduce new products and Web-based resources to journalists, and political operatives criticize news organizations' editorial coverage. This is the new, journalistic spam: The messages range from polite to impudent, their requests from the feasible to the impossible.

The press releases that members of the media receive, en masse, by snail mail or blast fax, are usually considered either a helpful source of information, great for story ideas or news briefs, or an unwelcome intrusion, a waste of paper and energy. Putting these releases into e-mail makes sense; further information is only a button push away, while unwelcome messages can be easily deleted.

Not all news organizations find this method of announcing events and causes worthwhile, though; many find it intrusive and demand traditional routes of data exchange. National Public Radio even posts a request on its Web site: "Please do not use our electronic addresses for press releases or other bulk-mailed material, such as confirmation copies of messages to government officials, etc. If an NPR address has been added to a mailing list, please remove it." Still, many of the problems with electronic press releases lie in their indiscriminate use; those wishing to send such releases should first determine who should receive the mail and send accordingly.

The journalistic spam sent in hopes of effecting editorial change is more curious, since the messages, which are sent by individuals and by political groups, make obtuse demands of staffers, calling upon them to investigate certain, usually political, issues or to work within the newsroom for change. "The information you received should be general knowledge. It isn't general knowledge because the media is suppressing information?"  

The nature of a journalist's job demands relative objectivity on political issues. For an organization -- any organization -- to try to hold reporters and editors responsible for the decisions of their superiors and to ask them to risk so much at the electronic request of a faceless group seems disrespectful at best. A reporter's first urge might (and often, should) be to automatically hit the delete key -- particularly since most of the messages in this category read like ravings that, if received in the regular mail, would be either tossed or passed on to security. ("Glory be to the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost. Revelation chapter 10&11;15-19. It is very important the people receive this information. You may tell someone about this.")

But something about these electronic missives is working. They generate conversation and discussion in the newsroom and sometimes can drive comments to superiors. Case in point: one day in mid-May, the entire Los Angeles Times editorial staff was greeted with an e-mailed plea from an immigrant group that felt slighted by the paper's coverage: "The history of the Los Angeles Times has been one of... bias and we believe that it is time for a change. We are writing to you because we believe that you are a person of good conscience. We know that it is only a small group of staff writers and xenophobic editors that are doing all the harm. We are asking for your efforts in seeking internal change within the Los Angeles Times."

The next day, almost 300 editorial staff members met with Times Publisher Mark Willes about his views on diversity and the paper's coverage of L.A.'s minority communities. One staffer, commenting on the Times's coverage of the Latino community, alluded to the e-mail she -- and the rest of the staff -- had received. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect to this new breed of spam, though, is that these spammers wish to be found. They refrain from hiding behind the complicated return addresses favored by everyday spammers. Their Web sites can actually be accessed, and return messages are answered quickly. "Sorry to have bothered you," one spammer responded to my pleas to be removed from his list. "You won't be e-mailed again... But you should be aware of what the company you work for is doing to your country."