The phrase “debate begins” in the headlines of multiple stories on coronavirus does not mean sneaky journalists copy-pasted a press release

If you encounter the same story on different news sites, that does not mean you caught sneaky America-hating fake news “journalists” in the act.

A meme I recently encountered shows three slightly different coronavirus headlines, all of which use the phrase “debate begins.” Text shared along with the meme suggests the repetition means the story is a copy-pasted press release.

I did some simple Googling. You can follow the links below and see for yourself all 3 outlets ran the same article, and credited it to the Associated Press:  NBC News, WCPO (Cincinnati), and Globalnews.ca,.

Yes, it is unethical when editors treat press releases as news stories. Yes, a big chain of local TV stations recently raised eyebrows by having its dozens of local anchors across the country read the same editorial.

But there are other, perfectly legitimate, ways for the same article to appear on different websites. Just as cinemas in different cities screen the same movies and different bookstores sell the same books, it’s perfectly normal for different organizations to re-publish the same news stories.

The Associated Press is a non-profit agency made up of far-flung regional publishers who agree to share their own homegrown content. If a national story breaks in Dubuque, the reporters from local and regional publications based in Iowa are the best-prepared to cover it. After a Dubuque member of the AP publishes a story, other members of the AP are permitted to republish that same story under the “AP” brand.

Local news outlets and anywhere else can fill their “National” and “World” sections with stories that were first published by another AP member, leaving local reporters more time to focus on covering local news, so that if a huge news story breaks in their area, they’ll be ready to share it with other AP members far and wide.

The headline is slightly different on each site because online editors and page designers often tweak the phrasing, whether to make the words fit better on a line, or to make the headlines look more interesting to search engines.

Journalism, like government, is an imperfect human institution, and journalists who make mistakes or let bias cloud their judgment are not above reproach. But this meme is a nothingburger.

Every time someone creates or shares a meme that implies journalists are untrustworthy, the general public has that much less faith in the free press, which puts American democracy just that more at risk.

Autocrats and enemies of democracy know what the authors of the First Amendment to the US Constitution knew — that a free press is vital to the functioning of a free society.