Churnalism revisited

I believe I’ll live to regret this, but to return to a topic touched on at the last picamp in Belfast. The Guardian reports on the new venture by the Media Standards Trust. bills itself as a press release detector, allowing the user to paste an online sourced news story into a text box for cross reference against articles from the UK national press and the BBC.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia actually provides the best definition of churnalism: “A form of journalism in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking.” (As John Slattery notes, the term pre-dates Flat Earth News, credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir.)

According to The Guardian report the site:

Compares the text with a constantly updated database of more than 3m articles. The results, which give articles a “churn rating”, show the percentage of any given article that has been reproduced from publicity material.

The Guardian, who were given exclusive access to said all media organisations were at times guilty of reproducing PR material verbatim.

“People don’t realise how much churn they’re being fed every day,” said Martin Moore, director of the trust, which seeks to improve standards in news. “Hopefully this will be an eye-opener.”

Moore said he accepted journalists often have a valid reason for using press releases, and will often need to copy and paste significant chunks, such as official statements and quotes. But he said that on many occasions reporters appear to be lifting press release text verbatim and adding little or no additional material.

Most of the national dailies are found guilty on different levels, with a particular weakness for PR material from supermarkets. Even the BBC are caught out during trials. Journalists may be troubled by the findings but by and large won’t be surprised. Increased pressure and smaller editorial teams often leave  journalists and sub-editors lifting PR material and dropping it onto pages.

However the Guardian’s head of media and technology Dan Sabbagh writes that while will expose the degree of laziness in journalism, it won’t expose widespread fraud within the profession.

A surprisingly large number of important news stories start that way, not least every blue-chip company’s financial results or the confirmation of a senior appointment at any public or private body. Formal, public announcements have to be made somehow, and interpreted thereafter.

What it should mostly expose is the journalism of the margins: the news items that might once have just made the in-brief columns, lifted and unchecked from a press release or from another news source. Except now, that sort of instant, “filler” journalism has drifted a little closer to the mainstream.

Some experimentation from the regional dailies produced mixed results. The ‘churnalism’ from regional stories tended to be limited to pasting officially issued statements, with certain phraseology naturally overlapping. What was more interesting were stories describing research or reports by organisations such as charities. In some cases these stories were almost lifted almost verbatim. It is stories of this nature, which increasingly includes material from PR agencies, that Sabbagh is talking about, moving from the margins and page briefs to page leads.

Just a note on press releases issued by government departments. I am in two minds. On one hand it isn’t feasible for ministers to give individual statements on every story to every journalist, they would get little else done. However press offices can often act as a barrier to getting answers, issuing vague statements en masse which seldom address the original submitted question. Ministers too often hide behind generalised statements, which has implications for transparency. If we are to move away from churnalism, government departments, health trusts and arms length bodies must open up as well.

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