Archive for the ‘Churnalism’ Category

How to Detect Original Journalism vs. Churnalism from Press Releases

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This post was first published on PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on April 26th 2013

When we launched Churnalism.com in the U.K. in 2011 it was not, shall we say, well received by some of those in the PR world. “PR industry hits out at Churnalism.com site” read a headline in the U.K. trade paper PR Week. One organization – SWNS – even contacted us to object strongly to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com. We demurred. (You can read about it here.)

Ruffling a few feathers was, we thought, a sign we were probably doing something right. The Sunlight Foundation appeared to think the same and got in touch to find out more about the software we developed to power the churn engine.

Sunlight rightly realized the potential behind the software we had developed (or to be more precise, that Donovan Hide had developed). Super Fast Match, or SFM (as we named it), could not only be used to track churnalism, it could track matching strings of text in any document online — something that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales noted in The Guardian shortly after the site was launched. Sites like churnalism.com, Wales noted, “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”

And so the Sunlight Foundation and the Media Standards Trust began working together to enhance the software. Our first project was geared toward enhancing and open sourcing the code for SFM. Sunlight was, among other things, keen on tracking the influence of lobby groups on U.S. government legislation. Donovan developed a souped-up version ofSFM which has been used for ad-hoc Sunlight analyses, notably the spread of legislative provisions among sets of selected bills, as well as being made available for anyone to reuse (see link).

We were always hopeful that, after we had enhanced SFM, we could work with Sunlight to produce a new, improved version of Churnalism for the U.S. The U.K. version — chugging away at churnalism.com — is still an important and useful resource. But it has always been hampered in its success because it relies on people coming to the site and pasting in press releases. It could be so much more useful — and powerful — if it were integrated into people’s browsers. That way, you wouldn’t need to go to the site; you would just be alerted about possible churnalism when you’re reading a news article.

ENTER CHURNALISM U.S.

Fortunately, thanks to a second collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation, that is what we have together been able to do with Churnalism U.S.. The tool is now a browser plugin for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. It automatically accesses press releases from major public and private sources, and Wikipedia, such that the plugin can tell you when when you might be looking at churnalism, while you are reading the news.

We have learned a few things about churnalism over the last couple of years. The “Fourth Paragraph Rule” says that if a news article is based on a survey designed to get publicity, you’ll normally find the company’s name around paragraph four. If a headline includes the words “you need to…” then it is less likely there to inform you than to advertise to you. Watch out for superlative lists like “The sexiest jobs,” “The 10 most visited holiday spots,” “The top songs to send you to sleep.” Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are also red letter days as far as churn goes. Predictable news pegs like these are a boon to press release writers.

And when you see a news story about sex, alarm bells should go off. Let’s say, for example, you read an article based on new research that has found sex with a condom is as pleasurable as sex without (like this one). Does the article tell you who conducted the research? In this case, many didn’t (see here), which is a shame since it turns out it was supported by Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan Brand condoms and vibrators.

Our aim has always been greater transparency. As one blogger, sparked by churnalism.com, wrote to journalists in 2011, “If you have to churn, at least be honest about it.” Some news organizations do now link to press releases. Many still don’t. Which is why it’s very good news that we now have both Churnalism U.S. and Churnalism UK.With luck it will lead to a change in behavior. But even if it doesn’t, people will be able to see for themselves what is original journalism and what is churnalism.

Written by Martin Moore

May 22nd, 2013 at 8:47 am

Go explore churnalism.com

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This post was first published at Media Standards Trust on 23rd March 2011

Since churnalism.com launched on 23rd February a lot of people have asked us if they could ‘search the other way’. In other words, could they see news articles that appeared to be based on press releases rather than vice versa.

We now have enough press releases in the system to make that worthwhile. So today we’re launching an ‘Explore’ page. Here you can see all the news articles that appear to based on press releases loaded into our system (over 5,000 so far). You can filter by press release source – such as the government’s news distribution service, Sainsbury’s or Eurekalert (science releases). And, you can filter by news outlet (UK nationals, BBC news online and Sky).

Go to churnalism.com ‘Explore’ page

This reveals things like the:

Our system tracks back most national news articles for about three years. Press releases are, necessarily, still more sporadic since they rely on people uploading and on a select handful of popular press release sources.

We will be adding more press release sources as fast as we can. In the meantime, if you’d like to help you can:

  • Tell us where we can find good sources of press releases online
  • Help us write scrapers (if you’re feeling really techie). We’ve put up a short ‘how to’ guide here. If you have any issues please do drop us an email (team AT journalisted DOT com)

Any pages you find when exploring churnalism.com you can share with a shortened url via twitter or Facebook or elsewhere.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:12 am

Posted in Churnalism

Why churnalism.com should keep highlighting the use of survey ‘news copy’ by the UK press

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This post was first published at Media Standards Trust on 10th March 2011

Surveys are a good way to generate ‘news’. News outlets like to be seen to reflect public attitudes and concerns, and surveys appear to do this. Because of their news value, surveys are frequently commissioned by commercial organisations to promote their products and services. There is nothing wrong with commissioning such a survey, except that these surveys are then often presented in mainstream media as ‘independent news’, which they are not.

OnePoll conducts many such commercial surveys. OnePoll is certainly not the only organisation to use surveys as a news peg, Travelodge do as well for example, but this post focuses on them because it helps to illustrate why churnalism.com is performing a useful function in helping to make the practice more transparent.

Since launching churnalism.com we’ve been in an on-off dialogue with South West News Group (SWNS), the owner of One Poll surveys. SWNS have strongly objected to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com (see SWNS post here). To summarise their objections:

  • The OnePoll surveys are not written up as ‘press releases’ but as ‘news copy’ by professionally trained (quote) ‘news agency journalists’
  • As such they are ‘factually accurate, rigorously checked news copy which needs little or no subbing’
  • This news copy is then ‘distributed direct to national news desks via the SWNS newswire’
  • Because it is written as ‘page-ready news copy’ it is designed to be published almost without alteration in the mainstream media.

It should first be noted that, based on this post, SWNS may have misunderstood the nature and purpose of churnalism.com. It is a tool that allows the public to compare bodies of text with news. Though we encourage people to paste in press releases, they can – and do – paste in lots of other text, such as news agency copy, news articles, Wikipedia entries, even text from plays and books. The site then finds news articles that appear to be closely based on this pasted text. It is not churnalism.com’s job to police what people choose to compare.

But there are a number of reasons why, now I know more about how the SWNS system works, I think it is even more important that churnalism.com raises public awareness about the use of this type of survey ‘news’ by the UK press:

  • The OnePoll surveys that have been written up (and are listed on their site) are commissioned by commercial organisations in order to help promote a product or service. For example:
    • ‘People find true happiness by reaching the age of 50’ says a survey by Engage Mutual Assurance who have an ‘over 50s life cover’ insurance policy (20-1-11)
    • ‘The honeymoon period in marriage ends after just 14 months’ partly because partners put less care into personal hygiene, says a survey by Better Bathrooms (17-02-11)
    • ‘Eight out of ten singletons check out potential future partners online before they ever meet them’ says a survey by www.UKDating.com (5-01-11)
    • ‘Dedicated dog owners walk 23,739 miles during their pet’s lifetime’ according to a survey by esure pet insurance (11-02-11)
  • A key reason commercial organisations commission OnePoll is because the surveys will be written up by journalists in the style of independent news
  • They also know that, because the OnePoll write-ups are distributed via the SWNS ‘news wire’ mainstream news organisations are less likely to view them as a press releases, but rather as independent news (which they are not, at the very least they are ‘branded stories’ to use an SWNS phrase)
  • Because mainstream news organisations do not view them as press releases, they are more likely to publish them virtually unchanged – as with Associated Press or Reuters news copy.

This is great for the commercial organisation which has commissioned the survey because:

This is not so great from the perspective of the public which has been led to believe that that this is not a promotional article written to help sell a product or service but independent news. The public have been encouraged to think, for example:

Nor are OnePoll surveys occasional items of ‘news’ that only come out once a week or once a month. In the six months from September 2010 to February 2011 there were 176 (as recorded on the OnePoll press release archive). This is over 29 each month, or almost one-a-day. Many of the write-ups of these surveys are being republished almost unchanged in the UK press (as shown by churnalism.com).

Clearly the responsibility for making this more transparent to the public does not fall entirely on SWNS or similar companies that conduct and write up such surveys. SWNS has, at least, engaged in dialogue on this and sought to make the process by which OnePoll surveys make it into the press clearer.

Much of the onus is on the mainstream media to:

  • Be as sceptical about OnePoll ‘news copy’ surveys and other surveys as they are about press releases from commercial organisations
  • Do some of their own journalism on these surveys so, even if they do publish them, they at least add some context and scepticism to the claims
  • Make it very clear to the public that these are ‘sponsored news’ stories by labelling them as such.

I hope the press will do this but I’m not holding my breath. Which is why churnalism.com needs to keep highlighting the use of OnePoll news copy and similar such copy from other organisations by the UK press.

Written by Martin Moore

May 23rd, 2011 at 11:11 am

Posted in Churnalism

Churnalism.com Reveals Press Release Copy in News Stories

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This post was first published on the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on 9th March 2011

Two weeks in, and the public response to Churnalism.com has been fantastic.

Since we launched the site on February 23, we have had 50,000 unique visitors, over 330,000 page impressions, and hundreds of press releases pasted in and saved. According to Google Analytics the site has been visited by people in 134 countries.

People have tracked down churnalism about eye-catching new products (such as “Baby Gaga,” ice cream made with breast milk), about new research findings from universities (for example, on the “protective properties of green tea”), about new police initiatives (e.g., the recruitment of teenagers by police to prevent cyber-bullying), about the “happiest time of the week” (7:26 pm on a Saturday, says a poll sponsored by a multivitamin company), and about the prose of Jane Austen (which might not be all hers after all, according to an Oxford study). People have pointed us to stores of press releases like www.eurekalert.org and www.alphagalileo.org so we can build up a bigger bank of comparisons. And there have been discussions about what might constitute “signals of churnalism.”

As importantly for us, the site has sparked lots of debate about churnalism. Here are some of the top questions that have come up:

Do the public care if journalists are churning out press releases?

Some felt the site’s exposure of churnalism would not much bother the public.

Mark Stringer of Pretty Green told PR week he was “not sure why anyone would want to go to the time and effort of producing a website to prove something that no one really cares about.”

Others thought the opposite was true.

“If you tell someone who is a punter rather than a journo that it’s pretty standard practice to ctrl+C and ctrl+V huge chunks of a press release into a story,” Steven Baxter wrote in his New Statesman blog, you’ll get a revealing reaction. “I call it the ‘Really?’ face. People look at you as if to say ‘Really? Is that what you do?’”

Our own experience to date appears to support Baxter’s view rather than Stringer’s.

Does the re-use of wire copy count as ‘churnalism’?

There has been a fascinating discussion about the re-use of wire copy, especially when it is re-used almost verbatim, often with a byline from the news outlet added.

People have pointed out that news outlets subscribe to wire services to broaden their access to news, so why shouldn’t they publish it?

Others have countered that using wire copy is not the problem, but passing it off as your own is.

“If you have to churn,”Minority Thought blogged, “at least be honest about it.”

How can news organizations make their use of press releases more transparent?

On Memeburn, Tom Foremski wrote about a suggestion he made a few years back to color-code text that came from a press release. For example, distinguishing text “copied from a release or outside source (red)” from original text in black — and potentially other colors to represent separate conflicts of interest. Others suggested just noting or linking to the release.

Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University London, worried that rather than push journalists towards footnoting sources, Churnalism.com might discourage them.

Will Churnalism.com help reduce the production line approach to press releases?

A prominent communications professional, Mark Borkowski, welcomed the site, hoping it might help kill off the mass production of poor press releases.

So many are now produced, Borkowski wrote, that “the level of noise makes it hard for the true craft of the publicist to flourish.”

Is all churnalism bad?

Alan Twigg of Seventy Seven PR told PR Week that “this site is making it sound like [public relations officers] getting coverage is a doddle and that PROs are taking over the media. If only it was that easy.” Sounding a similar note, Stuart Skinner of PHA Media took to PR’s defense on the same website, saying that “news is not a product of collusion between shady PROs and lazy journalists.”

It is worth noting that the site does not say churnalism is easy, nor indeed that the reproduction of parts of press releases is necessarily unsavory.

“Of course not all churnalism is bad,” the site’s FAQ section says. “Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden.”

Richard Sambrook also made an important point in his blog, that “there is of course Good PR and Bad PR just as there is Good Journalism and Bad Journalism.”

Does Churnalism.com illustrate the self-correcting power of the web?

In the Guardian’s online comment section Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, suggested that plagipedia and Churnalism.com “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”

What’s an equivalent word for “churnalism” in Spanish?

Great question. 1001Medios began a Twitter-hunt for a word in Spanish that captured the idea of “churnalism.” Sadly, my Spanish is not good enough to work out if they’ve found one yet.

Building Buzz Without Legacy Media

The tremendous public response and debate almost certainly would not have happened without social media, blogs, and Chris Atkins. Chris’ news stunts — particularly about the chastity garter, the penazzle and Larry (or Jo) the cat — captured public attention at the same time as making a serious point about how churn makes it into the mainstream media. (You can see Chris’ film describing the stunts on the Guardian website, and his blog about it here.)

They also helped kick-start discussion about churnalism on social media, notably Twitter and Facebook. Thousands of people have tweeted about the “churnalism” problem, about Churnalism.com as a way to address the problem, about evidence of churn they have found, and yes, about Larry the Cat and the penazzle. It has been humbling and somewhat overwhelming to observe the level of public response and engagement.

Indeed, without social media and blogs there is every chance the site might have gone virtually unnoticed. The Guardian, which published the original “reveal” article about the news stunts, is still the only UK national newspaper site to have mentioned Churnalism.com.

Major news outlets that were fooled by Chris’ PR stunts have yet to acknowledge their mistakes — much less the website the hoaxes were intended to publicize. The BBC’s Radio 5 Live is — as far as we know — yet to tell its listeners that the “Jo the Cat” story, which they discussed at length on their lunchtime program, was a fabrication. The Daily Mail does not appear to have informed its readers that Margaret Sutcliffe is not pursuing her custody claim about the Prime Minister’s cat.

Contrast this with BBC Norfolk which immediately put its hands up and then used the hoax as a good way to start a discussion about churnalism.

Industry and International Attention

The public relations industry in the U.K. has been more direct in its response than the mainstream press. “PR Industry hits out at churnalism site” said an article on PRWeek.co.uk.

Various figures from the industry voiced their concern about the impact the site might have on the reputation of PR. Though in a measured and sensible leader, the editor Danny Rogers suggested churnalism was a genuine threat to both journalism and PR: “If organizations are churning out rubbish, and so-called journalists are mere accomplices in this process, we will all be taking part in a depressing downward spiral.”

One of the really encouraging things about the response to the site in its first two weeks has been the international reaction. In addition to many kind words of encouragement, we have had expressions of interest from people to extend the site to the U.S., Germany, Finland, Spain, and Australia. We’ve spoken to NPR radio in New York, to CBC radio in Canada, BBC Radio Norfolk, BBC Wales and to community radio in Essex. We’ve been contacted by news organizations in Germany, Belgium, Australia, the U.S. and Russia.

What’s Next for Churnalism.com?

Some of this interest is not in the site itself but in the technology that underlies it. The methodology we developed can be applied to many other uses beyond churnalism. It could be used, for example, to trace changes in the progress of legislation. It could be used to measure the re-use of Wikipedia. It could be applied to plagiarism in other parts of the web.

We’re still pedaling furiously to respond to many of the questions people have raised and issues identified. We are, for example, about to introduce a page that allows people to explore the use of press releases by news outlet or sector (i.e. government, science). We are now highlighting, on the home page, what comparisons people are sharing (since people seem to prefer to share than to rate). We are adding a report button so people can tell us when something definitely is not churn.

Finally, we will start to link the site more directly with the other Media Standards Trust transparency projects — notably journalisted.com and hNews. This should help us to create a whole toolbox of transparency and accountability mechanisms for online news and create an ecology that will foster and advantage original journalism.

Written by Martin Moore

March 11th, 2011 at 1:17 pm