Churnalism Exposes News As PR

A new site will identify news articles based on press releases rather than journalism.

A new site will identify news articles based on press releases rather than journalism.

Guardian (“Churnalism or news? How PRs have taken over the media — As press releases and hoax stories flood newsrooms, the Media Standards Trust has found a way to sift fact from fluff“):

The website, churnalism.com, created by charity the Media Standards Trust, allows readers to paste press releases into a “churn engine”. It then 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 was given exclusive access to churnalism.com prior to launch. It revealed how all media organisations are at times simply republishing, verbatim, material sent to them by marketing companies and campaign groups.

Meanwhile, an independent film-maker, Chris Atkins, has revealed how he duped the BBC into running an entirely fictitious story about Downing Street’s new cat to coincide with the site’s launch

The director created a Facebook page in the name of a fictitious character, “Tim Sutcliffe”, who claimed the cat – which came from Battersea Cats Home – had belonged to his aunt Margaret. The story appeared in the Daily Mail and Metro, before receiving a prominent slot on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Atkins, who was not involved in creating churnalism.com, uses spoof stories to highlight the failure of journalists to corroborate stories. He was behind an infamous prank last year that led to the BBC running a news package on a hoax Youtube video purporting to show urban foxhunters.

Hilarious. I’ve pointed out instances of flack hackery in the press many times over the years.

In fairness, I’ve been on the sending side of press releases as well — although I do fight to make them rare and actually newsworthy. And I think it’s perfectly valid to use press releases from trusted organizations — academic journals, universities, nonpartisan think tanks, respectable NGOs, etc. — as a basis for stories. Releases that highlight research findings and provide a quote or two from organization leaders or scholars are a perfectly sound source of news. But good journalists and their editors should go beyond re-crafting the press release into a story, providing background information, putting the research into the context of the larger scholarship, and the like.

Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that relying on wire service stories as the basis for a quickly repackaged report — an exceedingly common practice even at prestige outlets like WaPo and NYT — is also a form of “churnalism.”

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    And I think it’s perfectly valid to use press releases from trusted organizations — academic journals, universities, nonpartisan think tanks, respectable NGOs, etc. — as a basis for stories.

    I think there’s a flaw in this. An organization may be trusted for some purposes but no organization can be trusted for all purposes. The reliability of using a press release from an organization then depends on whether the organization is trusted in the area to which the press release pertains and the subject of the article.

    Further, there’s no objective standard for whether an organization is trusted or not.

    Consequently, this is begging the question.

    In my view it is never acceptable for a news organization simply to incorporate a press release into a story without citation, i.e. rather than simply incorporating the press release into the story as is extremely common on business and technology pages, just to mention two, the story should be written “According to a press release from [source], …” followed by the verbiage from the press release.

    Similarly, it is not acceptable for new organizations to incorporate statements from political campaigns, candidates, serving officials, or the White House without citation.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Dave:

    That’s the most transparent way of doing it, I agree. But I do think that it’s reasonable that if, say, Brookings or NATURE sends you a press release about a report that they’ve put out, that the story can attribute the report:

    According to a new study released by the Brookings Institution, “Blah, blah, blah.” Lead researcher Dr. Dudley Smedlap observed that, “Blah, blah, blah.”

    The above strikes me as kosher, since it’s extraordinarily unlikely Brookings would lie about what’s in their report.

    Now, again, I don’t think simply passing on what the report says is adequate reporting.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I have no problem with incorporating verbiage from press releases in the manner in which you indicate in the comment above. However, all too often I’ve seen press releases used as stories without citation. That’s problematic.

  4. John Burgess says:

    I agree that quotation with attribution, whether direct or indirect, is fine. Simply lifting verbiage and incorporating it into one’s own story is not.

    I think, too, that a certain amount of skepticism about the PR is necessary. Fact-checking can be a pain in the neck, but it’s time well-spent if it avoids having one’s own writing compromised by a self-serving PR flack.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Dave and John: Looks like we’re in agreement.

    And, frankly, even from the perspective of a sender of some of these things, I actually don’t want the press release simply regurgitated. I want our organization to get mentioned in the story, along with our work, to help establish us as experts in a given arena. But I also want the issue that we’re weighing in on to get more critical coverage, too.

    Press releases should seek to shape coverage but not be the entirety of the coverage.

  6. mantis says:

    As someone who writes and distributes press releases (from an institution in one of your “trusted” categories), I too dislike it when the press release is simply reprinted, and not just because I think journalists should do their jobs and you know, make phone calls, check facts, dig a little, etc.

    When I write a press release, it tends to be designed to lead the press somewhere. I don’t provide every last detail, because most of the good journalists are going to want to write an article from their own sources and research, not from my release. I give enough detail to get their interest and get them started, but what I really am after is a phone call from a reporter interested in pursuing the story. Now it’s true that many of the questions they might ask could have been answered in the initial release, but the fact that they ask them can make all the difference as far as what makes it on the page.

  7. Peacewood says:

    In principle, I think this could be very helpful and a positive process.

    My only fear is that, unless it is handled delicately, it could just turn into another Media Matters (a group starting out with a noble goal of defining fact distortion that’s been nearly overrun with charges of partisanship).