May 2, 2011

Tracking churn


Earlier this year, the UK-based non-profit organization Media Standards Trust created the website Churnalism as a tool to determine when “journalism” is actually just a cut-and-pasted press release. Here’s how it works: you enter the text of a press release into the site’s “Churn Engine” which searches its article database to find the articles with the worst “Churn Rating,” i.e. the most egregious copying of the press releases.

For example, the conservative Tax Payers Alliance released the inflammatory press release reporting that “Britain’s first gay squash club has been given a £6,500 Government grant to help recruit lesbian and transgender players to the sport.” According to the Churn Engine, the Daily Telegraph published an “article” on the topic in which 98% of the text was lifted directly from the release. A side-by-side comparison shows the damning similarity. A press release by the corporate “international news exposure” service OnePoll reported that “It takes the average new mother one-and-a-half years to ‘feel like a woman again’ after childbirth” and The Daily Telegraph ran a story that included 1346 consecutive characters identical to the release. These parroted press releases can contain political or corporately motivated stories, or, sometimes, actual falsehoods: MobyLives recently reported about how a well-timed Easter press release and a lack of good journalism led the BBC to run a hoax concerning an ancient Biblical text as headline news.

To demonstrate how easy it is to generate “news” Martin Moore, the founder of Churnalism, created a fake press release about a “chastity garter belt” that used electric sensors to detect when a woman was about to be unfaithful and sent a message to her boyfriend or husband. Needless to say, the false story was picked up and reported by news outlets around the world. You can hear Moore discuss Churnalism and the “chastity garter belt” on On The Media here.

Churnalism acts as a useful watchdog against shoddy mainstream journalism. It also demonstrates a transparent search-engine algorithm being used for a positive purpose. We have a great ability to monitor information on the internet, but most of us are locked into Google’s mysterious search algorithm which, despite it’s usefulness, is obviously a corporate system. For example—as bloggers well know—proper attribution is a moral grey area in the semi-lawless world of the internet. Wouldn’t it be great to have search engines show us the chronological rise of a news story, so the actual journalists received their due, even if you finally encountered the information at a Huffington Post-style news aggregator or, indeed, a blog like this one? Tech has led to the dramatic rise of churn in our lives, so I feel it’s also up to tech to help us better understand the true nature and origins of our information.