Reporting vs. regurgitating – when Churnalism.com helps, and when it doesn’t

Churnalism.com, the Sunlight Foundation’s much-touted new app, sounds like a great tool for media critics and media skeptics. Much like its academic cousin, Turnitin.com, Churnalism.com is supposed to serve as an originality check. Just plug in the text, or the URL, and Churnalism.com is supposed to identify news articles that use unattributed quotations from other sources or that incorporate large chunks of press releases.

Why is that important? An article on the Make Use Of blog explains:

News is like sausage: it’s sometimes best to not know how it’s made, even in the best of times. And these are far from the best of times: as budgets for reporting slim around around the world, an increasing number of reporters resort to what known as “churnalism” – writing stories that are basically a rehash of a press release. This means that you, the reader, are essentially reading exactly what a given interest group wants you to read.

News geeks and journalists who (like me) get lots of press releases see lots of articles that are “basically a rehash of a press release.” While such “reporting” is common in smaller/local publications with low budgets, it can creep into the big time. A Kansas City Star reporter was fired last year for using material from press releases in his columns. Poynter reported that he sued the publisher because use of press releases is common and accepted practice.

Poynter polled readers (most of whom are connected to journalism) and more than half said it was okay to use press release, but only if the material was properly attributed. (Full disclosure: I voted in the poll and that got my vote.) Proper attribution means saying that information or a quotation came from a press release.

Quoting a press release as part of an article, however, is a lot different than the “basically a rehash” stories called churnalism, which consist of a lightly kneaded press release under a reporter’s byline. Some publications go even farther, publishing press releases verbatim as articles, with no clue to readers that these are actually press releases. That’s pernicious because, as an article in The Atlantic noted:

Countless times each day, we have to weigh the credibility of a piece of information, and decide whether to put our faith in it.

It’s not really feasible for each of us to track each piece of information to its source (nor would it be efficient), so, instead, we use clues — who wrote this, where is this published, does this square with other information we know.

When a news publication or reporter publishes something as news — without acknowledging that it’s actually a press release from the subject of the article — readers don’t have the information they need to assess the credibility of the report.

As a confirmed news geek, as well as a journalist, I was delighted to hear about Churnalism.com. Then I tried it out. I ran eight local articles through the app. All of them contained mostly (or only) material from press releases or organizational blogs. Not one was flagged by Churnalism.com.

Churnalism.com may be able to identify news articles with unattributed quotes from Wikipedia or White House press releases, but it doesn’t work well with local and state-level news. I contacted the folks at Sunlight Foundation who run Churnalism, and got back a nice email saying, in part, “Unfortunately our organization is too small to manually collect releases from individual outlets which is why we rely on syndication networks like PR Newswire.” (This page lists the sources that Churnalism checks.)

“Ever wonder if the news story you’re reading is a product of real journalism or just a spin off of another story posted elsewhere? ” asks Churnalism’s website.

When it comes to state and local news, we’re still left wondering.

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