Watch out churnalists, you are being watched…

Last week the Media Standards Trust (MST) launched a website that detects churnalism, churnalism.com, as part of a drive to improve the quality of journalism.

Churnalism is the process of recycling a press release into a news report with very little original reporting or fact checking. A study by a group at Cardiff University in 2006 showed that “nearly one in five newspaper stories were, verifiably, mainly or wholly sourced from press release material” and that science reporting showed the highest reliance on press releases, with up to 40 per cent of stories based on publicity documents.

MST director Martin Moore told ABSW that “churnalism has grown over the last decade, largely because the communication industry itself has grown.”

Inviting members of the public to identify churnalism themselves, churnalism.com aims to promote transparency in reporting and encourage journalists to cite original sources.

It was inspired by the research from Cardiff University and Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News (2008). The website uses the power of internet crowdsourcing: it takes the text of press release material entered by users of the web site and compares it to a large database of stories from the UK press, BBC, and Sky News on the MST’s journalisted.com. The website gives several user-friendly, graphic representations of the overlap between a press release and media news reports. An overlap of more than 20% is flagged up as a likely ‘churn’.

To take one example, the national press has reported widely on recent developments in microscope technology that allow almost limitless resolution. Churnalism.com identified the story from The Times (1st March 2011) as ‘probably churned’, with 52 per cent of the article lifted directly from the press release.

Science reporting in particular should benefit from this push towards greater transparency.

Freelance journalist Stephan van Duin told ABSW: “Science doesn’t work with big headlines or hard conclusions, so news covering science shouldn’t either. A press release surrounding a new discovery, by itself, is never enough to use as the basis of an article, and it should always be accompanied by other research … A website like churnalism.com is a great way to see how much of this essential context is provided … In a way, it’s a quality check.”

Others are less optimistic about the website’s ability to change the state of journalism.

Bob Franklin, lead researcher of the Cardiff study, told ABSW: “Newspapers have grown, but the number of journalists has decreased, so inevitably they are more reliant on press releases.”

Rather than improving the state of journalism, he says the web site could change the public’s perception of journalists: “churnalism.com will burst a bubble of pomposity and misleading representation of journalists to the public”.

Felicity Mellor, leader of the Science Communication course at Imperial College, London, told ASBW that “the fact that press releases play a prominent agenda-setting role is as much a concern as the degree of cutting and pasting that goes on”. An additional role of the website would thus be to “provide a place where press releases are made publicly available, and to track how many stories have spun out of press releases.”

But another freelance journalist told ABSW that press releases are there to be used and copied by reporters. “Media pay a lot of money to have access to agency copy,” she said, adding that there is nothing inherently wrong with using agency copy and press releases in science news articles.

Just 48 hours after its launch, the website had received over 180,000 page views, from over 28,000 unique visitors. A few days later, the database of ‘churned’ articles is already swelling. Time alone will tell whether industry-changing goals can be achieved by one website, but the laying bare of churnalistic reporting is a powerful weapon in the push for media transparency.

This news story was written by Leila Battison, and published online at http://www.absw.org.uk/news-events/news/737-watch-out-churnalists-you-are-being-watched on Thursday 3rd March.

 

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