Churnalism.com is a great new website by the Media Standards Trust. It is intended to help the public ‘distinguish between original journalism and churnalism’.
Churnalism is a news article that is based on a news release that hasn’t had much real journalistic input added and much of it has been cut and pasted from the source news release. What Churnalism.com does is allow you to paste in some copy, for example a news release from a company website, and it then compares it with news articles to find the degree of similarity. The result is a ‘churn rating’ that shows the percentage of any given article that has been reproduced from the news release. The FAQ has a more detailed explanation of how it does this using a database of articles on national newspaper websites, BBC news and Sky news.
In more than 20 years in public relations it is depressing that churnalism has become more and more prevalent. It used to be the case that it was mainly regional newspapers and vertical sector trade press that would reproduce vast swathes of your news release, and even then only if was well written in their style without reams of marketing bull. Today, as Churnalism.com shows, it’s even the national press and hallowed BBC that will do it.
The Guardian has a great article about how easy it is to create ‘fake’ news with the example of Chris Atkinson who duped the BBC, Daily Mail and Metro into running a fictitious story about Downing Street’s new cat actually belonging to his aunt.
It’s not, as far too many commentators have said, because of lazy journalists. It’s because there are less journalists trying to create more content. Something has got to give. Unfortunately it is the quality of the news that is published. This is where the vicious circle starts. If the quality of reporting in mainstream media isn’t really good then why would you pay for it? And if you don’t pay for it then that’s even less journalists the media owner can afford to employ. Which leads to even more churnalism.
The site is intended to highlight the problem of churnalism, but I can already envisage some PR agencies and in-house PR people rubbing their hands with glee as they imagine how they can use it to evidence the success of their activity. ‘Just look at how many nationals used so much of our news release, aren’t we fantastic.’ It isn’t great. In fact it’s depressing as without a healthy mainstream media the public relations industry will be a lot less important.