When I was a journalism student, I was taught how to write and investigate and check sources, how to structure a story and present information as dispassionately as possible.
I was also let into a little secret. There was a rather enlightening moment when I first started getting current press releases, writing articles, and then seeing those same stories in the press. I realised just how much of a press release would be used, often just tweaking the headline and the first sentence and then reproducing the rest wholesale.
And ‘wholesale’ it often is, since so many press releases are adverts in disguise, commissioned by companies to drum up conversation in their field. As readers, we don’t get to see the release. We rely on the journalist to do their job and look into it, get some balanced opinion, and give us the facts.
In a pressurised, fast moving age, the temptation is to skip the journalism and just churn out content. Press releases, while very useful, can be a tempting shortcut. One recent estimate suggests that 54% of news articles use some measure of PR content – giving rise to the term ‘churnalism‘.
Churnalism.com is a new website that aims to expose this phenomenon. Set up by the Media Standards Trust, the ‘churn engine’ is designed to spot PR. Simply paste in the copy and run the engine, and it will tell you what percentage of the article is copied and pasted from a press release.
“News organisations can now be much more transparent about the sources of their articles,” says Martin Moore of the MST, “but most of them still aren’t. Hiding the connection between PR and news is not in the interests of the public. Hopefully churnalism.com will nudge them to be more open about their use of PR material.”