When we launched Churnalism.com in the U.K. in 2011 it was not, shall we say, well received by some of those in the PR world. “PR industry hits out at Churnalism.com site“ read a headline in the U.K. trade paper PR Week. One organization — SWNS — even contacted us to object strongly to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com. We demurred. (You can read about it here.)
Ruffling a few feathers was, we thought, a sign we were probably doing something right. The Sunlight Foundation appeared to think the same and got in touch to find out more about the software we developed to power the churn engine.
Sunlight rightly realized the potential behind the software we had developed (or to be more precise, that Donovan Hide had developed). Super Fast Match, or SFM (as we named it), could not only be used to track churnalism, it could track matching strings of text in any document online — something that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales noted in The Guardian shortly after the site was launched. Sites like churnalism.com, Wales noted, “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”
And so the Sunlight Foundation and the Media Standards Trust began working together to enhance the software. Our first project was geared toward enhancing and open sourcing the code for SFM. Sunlight was, among other things, keen on tracking the influence of lobby groups on U.S. government legislation. Donovan developed a souped-up version of SFM which has been used for ad-hoc Sunlight analyses, notably the spread of legislative provisions among sets of selected bills, as well as being made available for anyone to reuse (see link).
We were always hopeful that, after we had enhanced SFM, we could work with Sunlight to produce a new, improved version of Churnalism for the U.S. The U.K. version — chugging away at churnalism.com — is still an important and useful resource. But it has always been hampered in its success because it relies on people coming to the site and pasting in press releases. It could be so much more useful — and powerful — if it were integrated into people’s browsers. That way, you wouldn’t need to go to the site; you would just be alerted about possible churnalism when you’re reading a news article.
enter churnalism u.s.
Fortunately, thanks to a second collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation, that is what we have together been able to do with Churnalism U.S.. The tool is now a browser plugin for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. It automatically accesses press releases from major public and private sources, and Wikipedia, such that the plugin can tell you when when you might be looking at churnalism, while you are reading the news.
We have learned a few things about churnalism over the last couple of years. The “Fourth Paragraph Rule“ says that if a news article is based on a survey designed to get publicity, you’ll normally find the company’s name around paragraph four. If a headline includes the words “you need to…” then it is less likely there to inform you than to advertise to you. Watch out for superlative lists like “The sexiest jobs,” “The 10 most visited holiday spots,” “The top songs to send you to sleep.” Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are also red letter days as far as churn goes. Predictable news pegs like these are a boon to press release writers.
And when you see a news story about sex, alarm bells should go off. Let’s say, for example, you read an article based on new research that has found sex with a condom is as pleasurable as sex without (like this one). Does the article tell you who conducted the research? In this case, many didn’t (see here), which is a shame since it turns out it was supported by Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan Brand condoms and vibrators.
Our aim has always been greater transparency. As one blogger, sparked by churnalism.com, wrote to journalists in 2011, “If you have to churn, at least be honest about it.” Some news organizations do now link to press releases. Many still don’t. Which is why it’s very good news that we now have both Churnalism U.S. and Churnalism UK. With luck it will lead to a change in behavior. But even if it doesn’t, people will be able to see for themselves what is original journalism and what is churnalism.
Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust, a nonprofit organization that aims to foster high quality journalism. He has been working in news and media for more than a decade, including for the BBC, Channel 4, NTL, IPC Media, Trinity Mirror and others. Moore studied history at Cambridge and holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he was teaching and researching until summer 2006.