Down with churnalism

Churnalism, the art of passing off rewritten press releases and wire copy as news, is about to become somewhat harder for news organisations to hide.

Or so the Media Standards Trust hope.

Yesterday, they launched a new website called Churnalism.com, which lets you track down news articles that have been churned from press releases.

It works simply enough – Just paste the text of a press release into the form on the site and press the button below.

The website will then search millions of articles across national newspaper websites, as well as the BBC News and Sky News sites, identifying any articles that share more than 20% of their content with the pasted press release.

As an example of how the website works, lets use it with the “migrant a minute” press release that was issued by MigrationWatch this week.

According to Churnalism.com, this particular press release was churned into seven different articles; one each in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times, Daily Mirror, The Independent, and two in the Daily Express. The similarity between the articles and the original press release ranges from 27% (in the Independent) to 48% (in The Times).

In his book on bad journalism, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies quoted a study conducted by Cardiff University which found that “80% of the stories in Britain’s quality press were not original and that only 12% of stories were generated by reporters”.

A perfect example of the way that churnalism can be exploited to sell a product or a service are the recent stories claiming that Facebook was increasingly being blamed for marriage break-ups. These stories appeared in all the major newspapers at around the same time, and all of them seemed to be based on the claims of a divorce lawyer, who got a lot of nice free publicity for her law firm as a result of the coverage. You can be sure that a press release was behind it.

There’s an excellent video on the Guardian website today that demonstrates just how easy it is to exploit the media’s tendency to churn stories, whether those stories are true or not.

In the video, Chris Atkins, who directed the 2009 documentary Starsuckers, sends out a number of press releases about a fashion accessory, called a “penazzle” (a kind of diamante tattoo for the male nether-regions). The very next day, the story started popping up in newspapers with large chunks of the original press release simply copied and pasted into the articles.

In reality, the penazzle didn’t exist and the website advertising the product was knocked up by a web design company in a matter of hours. Clearly, none of the journalists checked first to verify if the product even existed before publishing the stories.

The prevalence of this kind of anti-journalism is potentially very damaging indeed. It means that even some of the world’s most respected news sources can be reduced to publishing what is essentially propaganda as if it were truth.

Now, it would be OK if it was just penazzle manufacturers and divorce lawyers that sent press releases to journalists to be churned – but it’s not. Governments, police forces, pressure groups and all manner of other organisations issue press releases too.

If most news sources are simply publishing slightly-rewritten versions of these releases without checking any of the facts or doing any of the necessary research, how can the public tell what’s true and what’s simply propaganda written to sell a product or a political cause?

Whilst the launch of this new website probably won’t solve this problem for good, it’ll hopefully help to increase the public’s awareness of the media’s dependency on churnalism.

The more the public are aware about this dependency and its potentially pernicious consequences, the more they’ll demand that the media stops acting as a mouthpiece for the PR industry.

2 Comments

Filed under Media and journalism

2 Responses to Down with churnalism

  1. I agree with practically everything you write here but I don't fully understand what is wrong with newspapers relaying to their readership a press release like that of MigrationWatch which people wouldn't usually read. Obviously I disagree with the ulterior motives and misrepresentation that often occurs within such articles but I don't think it's wholly fair to accuse a newspaper of wrongdoing just because they aren't conducting their own studies and voicing their own opinions. Maybe I'm misinterpreting what you wrote.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, Adam. That section isn't clear at all. I meant merely to demonstrate how Churnalism.com works. Have updated the post.

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