Churnalism.com Reveals Press Release Copy in News Stories

    by Martin Moore
    March 9, 2011

    Editors’ Note: Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust, which recently launched Churnalism.com — a website that helps the public distinguish journalism from “churnalism,” a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.

    Two weeks in, and the public response to Churnalism.com has been fantastic.

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    Since we launched the site on February 23, we have had 50,000 unique visitors, over 330,000 page impressions, and hundreds of press releases pasted in and saved. According to Google Analytics the site has been visited by people in 134 countries.

    People have tracked down churnalism about eye-catching new products (such as “Baby Gaga,” ice cream made with breast milk), about new research findings from universities (for example, on the “protective properties of green tea”), about new police initiatives (e.g., the recruitment of teenagers by police to prevent cyber-bullying), about the “happiest time of the week” (7:26 pm on a Saturday, says a poll sponsored by a multivitamin company), and about the prose of Jane Austen (which might not be all hers after all, according to an Oxford study). People have pointed us to stores of press releases like www.eurekalert.org and www.alphagalileo.org so we can build up a bigger bank of comparisons. And there have been discussions about what might constitute “signals of churnalism.”

    As importantly for us, the site has sparked lots of debate about churnalism. Here are some of the top questions that have come up:


    Do the public care if journalists are churning out press releases?

    Some felt the site’s exposure of churnalism would not much bother the public.

    Mark Stringer of Pretty Green told PR week he was “not sure why anyone would want to go to the time and effort of producing a website to prove something that no one really cares about.”

    Others thought the opposite was true.

    “If you tell someone who is a punter rather than a journo that it’s pretty standard practice to ctrl+C and ctrl+V huge chunks of a press release into a story,” Steven Baxter wrote in his New Statesman blog, you’ll get a revealing reaction. “I call it the ‘Really?’ face. People look at you as if to say ‘Really? Is that what you do?’”

    Our own experience to date appears to support Baxter’s view rather than Stringer’s.

    Does the re-use of wire copy count as ‘churnalism’?

    There has been a fascinating discussion about the re-use of wire copy, especially when it is re-used almost verbatim, often with a byline from the news outlet added.

    People have pointed out that news outlets subscribe to wire services to broaden their access to news, so why shouldn’t they publish it?

    Others have countered that using wire copy is not the problem, but passing it off as your own is.

    “If you have to churn,”Minority Thought blogged, “at least be honest about it.”

    How can news organizations make their use of press releases more transparent?

    On Memeburn, Tom Foremski wrote about a suggestion he made a few years back to color-code text that came from a press release. For example, distinguishing text “copied from a release or outside source (red)” from original text in black — and potentially other colors to represent separate conflicts of interest. Others suggested just noting or linking to the release.

    Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University London, worried that rather than push journalists towards footnoting sources, Churnalism.com might discourage them.

    Will Churnalism.com help reduce the production line approach to press releases?

    A prominent communications professional, Mark Borkowski, welcomed the site, hoping it might help kill off the mass production of poor press releases.

    So many are now produced, Borkowski wrote, that “the level of noise makes it hard for the true craft of the publicist to flourish.”

    Is all churnalism bad?

    Alan Twigg of Seventy Seven PR told PR Week that “this site is making it sound like [public relations officers] getting coverage is a doddle and that PROs are taking over the media. If only it was that easy.” Sounding a similar note, Stuart Skinner of PHA Media took to PR’s defense on the same website, saying that “news is not a product of collusion between shady PROs and lazy journalists.”

    It is worth noting that the site does not say churnalism is easy, nor indeed that the reproduction of parts of press releases is necessarily unsavory.

    “Of course not all churnalism is bad,” the site’s FAQ section says. “Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden.”

    Richard Sambrook also made an important point in his blog, that “there is of course Good PR and Bad PR just as there is Good Journalism and Bad Journalism.”

    Does Churnalism.com illustrate the self-correcting power of the web?

    In the Guardian’s online comment section Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, suggested that plagipedia and Churnalism.com “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”

    What’s an equivalent word for “churnalism” in Spanish?

    Great question. 1001Medios began a Twitter-hunt for a word in Spanish that captured the idea of “churnalism.” Sadly, my Spanish is not good enough to work out if they’ve found one yet.

    Building Buzz Without Legacy Media

    The tremendous public response and debate almost certainly would not have happened without social media, blogs, and Chris Atkins. Chris’ news stunts — particularly about the chastity garter, the penazzle and Larry (or Jo) the cat — captured public attention at the same time as making a serious point about how churn makes it into the mainstream media. (You can see Chris’ film describing the stunts on the Guardian website, and his blog about it here.)

    They also helped kick-start discussion about churnalism on social media, notably Twitter and Facebook. Thousands of people have tweeted about the “churnalism” problem, about Churnalism.com as a way to address the problem, about evidence of churn they have found, and yes, about Larry the Cat and the penazzle. It has been humbling and somewhat overwhelming to observe the level of public response and engagement.

    Indeed, without social media and blogs there is every chance the site might have gone virtually unnoticed. The Guardian, which published the original “reveal” article about the news stunts, is still the only UK national newspaper site to have mentioned Churnalism.com.

    Major news outlets that were fooled by Chris’ PR stunts have yet to acknowledge their mistakes — much less the website the hoaxes were intended to publicize. The BBC’s Radio 5 Live is — as far as we know — yet to tell its listeners that the “Jo the Cat” story, which they discussed at length on their lunchtime program, was a fabrication. The Daily Mail does not appear to have informed its readers that Margaret Sutcliffe is not pursuing her custody claim about the Prime Minister’s cat.

    Contrast this with BBC Norfolk which immediately put its hands up and then used the hoax as a good way to start a discussion about churnalism.

    Industry and International Attention

    The public relations industry in the U.K. has been more direct in its response than the mainstream press. “PR Industry hits out at churnalism site“ said an article on PRWeek.co.uk.

    Various figures from the industry voiced their concern about the impact the site might have on the reputation of PR. Though in a measured and sensible leader, the editor Danny Rogers suggested churnalism was a genuine threat to both journalism and PR: “If organizations are churning out rubbish, and so-called journalists are mere accomplices in this process, we will all be taking part in a depressing downward spiral.”

    One of the really encouraging things about the response to the site in its first two weeks has been the international reaction. In addition to many kind words of encouragement, we have had expressions of interest from people to extend the site to the U.S., Germany, Finland, Spain, and Australia. We’ve spoken to NPR radio in New York, to CBC radio in Canada, BBC Radio Norfolk, BBC Wales and to community radio in Essex. We’ve been contacted by news organizations in Germany, Belgium, Australia, the U.S. and Russia.

    What’s Next for Churnalism.com?

    Some of this interest is not in the site itself but in the technology that underlies it. The methodology we developed can be applied to many other uses beyond churnalism. It could be used, for example, to trace changes in the progress of legislation. It could be used to measure the re-use of Wikipedia. It could be applied to plagiarism in other parts of the web.

    We’re still pedaling furiously to respond to many of the questions people have raised and issues identified. We are, for example, about to introduce a page that allows people to explore the use of press releases by news outlet or sector (i.e. government, science). We are now highlighting, on the home page, what comparisons people are sharing (since people seem to prefer to share than to rate). We are adding a report button so people can tell us when something definitely is not churn.

    Finally, we will start to link the site more directly with the other Media Standards Trust transparency projects — notably journalisted.com and hNews. This should help us to create a whole toolbox of transparency and accountability mechanisms for online news and create an ecology that will foster and advantage original journalism.

    Tagged: churnalism churnalism.com cut and paste journalism media standards trust original pr press releases public relations

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