April 24, 2013

Churnalism: helping you read journalism and not press releases


The media dark art of “churnalism,” copying press releases straight into articles, is a much-maligned problem, but one that has been hard to catch until now.

The term “churnalism” was first coined by Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News, which identified the growing influence of PR on what is being published each day, among other journalistic misdeeds.

As has been discussed before on MobyLives, it’s an open question whether this phenomenon is an entirely new scourge—a result of the punishing publishing pace set by the internet, which leaves journalists with little time to investigate—or whether it’s just easier to catch now that everything is searchable.

Nevertheless, we should all know when someone is simply regurgitating corporate-approved text without investigation or context, and that’s where the Sunlight Foundation comes in.

The Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit which advocates for openness and transparency, in partnership with the UK’s Media Standards Trust, has launched a new tool to promote journalistic accountability — Churnalism.

Just enter the URL or text of an article into the search engine and it will tell you if that same wording appears in another place in its extensive database.

Rebecca J. Rosen on The Atlantic writes that Churnalism will,

“scan any text (a news article, e.g.) and compare it with a corpus of press releases and Wikipedia entries. If it finds similar language, you’ll get a notification of a detected “churn” and you’ll be able to take a look at the two sources side by side. You can also use it to check Wikipedia entries for information that may have come from corporate press releases…Its database of press releases includes those from EurekaAlert! in addition to PR Newswire, PR News Web, Fortune 500 companies, and government sources.”

The quasi-search engine is similar to an earlier project from the Media Standards Trust in the UK.  When that site was launched in 2011, Paul Lewis in The Guardian wrote that it exposed the questionable, and perhaps not entirely unexpected, copying and pasting habits of Britain’s popular press.

“In a typical example, the Express, Mirror and Sun all lifted of chunks of text from a press release last month on behalf of the Benenden Healthcare Society, which quoted a poll showing “British women spend more money on their looks than their health”. The Daily Mail copied 98% of the text directly from the press release. Similarly, the Mirror, Mail and Express all reproduced chunks from a press release by campaign group Migration Watch, criticising immigration rates under the previous Labour government. However, the Times made the greatest use of it, running an article that was 53% cut-and-pasted press release.

…Interestingly, all media outlets appear particularly susceptible to PR material disseminated by supermarkets: the Mail appears to have a particular appetite for publicity from Asda and Tesco, while the Guardian favours Waitrose releases.”

This week has been marked by a great lamentation from media watchers in the wake of the Boston bombing coverage, which was marred by several missteps and blatant falsehoods. Although Churnalism can’t do much to help in regulating coverage of fast moving events, the sense that someone’s watching might serve as a self-correcting tool for some journalists, and  discourage them from the bad habit of copying and pasting.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.