Churnalism.com is a new website launched by the UK's Media Standards Trust, aiming to identify when and how much national news organisations copy and paste from press releases. Members of the public can paste the text of a press release into a box on the site, and it then compares the text to more than 3 million articles to look for similarities.
The site lists news articles that appear to have used the press release entered, and allows users to see what percentage of a press release has been used, what percentage of the article is based on that press release, and how many characters overlap between the release and the article.
It also offers a 'visualisation' of the article containing the press release text, and aims to enable readers to compare the two side by side.
The idea for Churnalism came early last year, Media Standards Trust director Martin Moore told the Editors Weblog. According, somewhat ironically, to a press release from the Media Standards Trust, the site was inspired by Guardian journalist Nick Davies' book Flat Earth News, in which he reported that PR material now finds its way into 54% of news stories. In a video on the Guardian's site, Moore noted that the UK PR industry is the second biggest in the world, and that there are now more people working in PR than there are in journalism.
Moore and the developers he was working with first imagined a wholly automated tool, like the MST's journalisted, a site that allows the public to search news articles by journalist, but given the difficulties involved with locating press releases, many of which are never published online, the idea to effectively crowdsource the finding of press release to the public emerged.
To test the theory that newspapers rely too much on press releases and do not carry out sufficient fact-checking, Guardian journalist Chris Atkins enlisted the help of Disturb Media to create a fake PR company website which then released some fake news stories, to see how they were picked up. Among others, a fictitious story about the prime minister's cat appeared in both the Daily Mail and Metro, the Guardian reported, and was then picked up on BBC Radio 5 Live.
That the implications of this are worrying is clear: the public relies on newspapers for accuracy and they should strive to provide it. Particularly in light of the competitive environment online, public trust is the one thing that sets many newspapers above other news sources and they should strive not to lose it,.
It is not entirely clear whether the over-use of press releases is in fact rising trend, but as Moore said, "If you look at the way that the PR industry has grown, and the fact that journalism is under such huge economic pressure - it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that this risked becoming more of an issue."
According to a survey carried out by the World Editors Forum and McKinsey & Company last year, editors see the influence of PR firms as more of a threat to their editorial independence than in previous years, with 14% of respondents listing this as the principal threat, compared with 12% in 2008 and 9% in 2006. Western European editors perceived this influence as the greatest threat, with 21% listing it thus.
But you can't blame the press releases, or the journalists, said Dan Sabbagh on the Guardian. "News websites hungry for content will happily send reporters to write up any sort of press release in pursuit of traffic," he said. "Such content has so little value that the journalists producing it are often under pressure to turn out repeated items - and in an environment where there is little time and little flair, copying and pasting is the starting point for writing."
And as Moore said, "clearly lots of press releases are in the public interest and should generate stories. He specified that, "the two main things we are trying to do with Churnalism are to encourage people to link to the source of their information, and to do more original reporting when they do use press releases."
He added that he also hopes the site will empower journalists to speak out when they are being pressured to put out more stories by editors: they can use Churnalism as evidence to show that they should be doing not more stories, but better ones.
Not all the articles listed on Churnalism are necessarily churnalism, Moore explained. "Many are what we would consider to be decent original journalism," he said: they are those which have used the press release but have added original research and independent verification.
Such articles, which use up to one third of a press release (the average of the 'cut' and 'paste' figures) are given one churn symbol on the site. The ones to be most wary of are those with two or three symbols, which represent 33-66% 'churn' and above 66% respectively.
Clearly, the encroachment of the PR industry into journalists' workspaces, offering easy story possibilities, is not a problem unique to the UK. Josh Shannon, student editor of an independent newspaper at the University of Delaware in the US, recently blogged about "the dumbest press release I've ever received," which offered him entry to a competition to win an iPad if he wrote about the product, a textbook selling site called Swellhead. Conditions were added: the article must be at least 200 words long and must appear in a prominent place in the paper, and link back to the company's site.
This is a somewhat extreme example of unethical behaviour that few journalists would even consider taking up, but will Churnalism succeed in drawing attention to the less obvious ethical issues that result in companies who can afford good PR easily getting their updates published by news organisations?