Archive for the ‘journalism’ tag

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 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 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 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, 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 — 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.


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, 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

Ladies and gentleman, please start your churn engines

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This post was first published on on Wednesday 23rd February

Today we (the Media Standards Trust) are launching, a free independent website that allows people to compare press releases with published news articles – to help identify ‘churnalism’.

It’s an idea we’ve been talking about for a good few years, but only finally got around to rolling our sleeves up last year. Ever since Nick Davies published Flat Earth News – detailing the vast quantities of press releases that make it into mainstream media – we’ve been wondering how to help distinguish churnalism from journalism.

Last spring we bit the bullet and asked Donovan Hide – a Liverpool based techno guru – to help us work out how to create it, building on the foundations of (which we also run). We’ve had to finance it from core funding (which we get from charitable foundations) since it’s pretty tricky to convince people to support this without seeing how it works. But now it’s up and running people will – we hope – see how useful it is and flock to our aid ;-)

How does work out if articles are churn?

When you paste a press release into and hit ‘compare’ the churn engine compares it with over three million articles published in the national press in the last three years (refreshed every hour or so).

The engine looks for 15-character strings in the press release that are exactly the same as 15-character strings in articles. When it finds the same string the engine looks for more identical strings in the same article. If more than 20% of the article and the press release overlap, the engine suggests it may be churn.

This makes the process sound quite simple. It’s not. For those who would like a much more sophisticated explanation of how it works, we’ll be publishing a post by Donovan Hide tomorrow.

Finding press releases

Finding press releases to compare with news articles is not as easy as it sounds. Though there are some press release aggregators that publish lots of releases on the web (like PR Newswire), this only covers a small percentage of the total number sent out. Many press releases are only published on the website of the organisation they are sent from. Many more are not published on the web at all but emailed directly to specific journalists.

This is why we’ve taken a mixed approach – part automated collection, part crowd sourcing. For the automated part, we scrape press releases from a bunch of organisations that send out lots – the government, big retailers like Tesco and M&S, and some police forces. We compare these automatically with all the articles published on national newspaper websites, and on the BBC and Sky.

For the crowdsourcing part, we allow people to paste in press releases and compare them. If they look like churn then you can save the press release (with the web link if it has one) so you can share it (e.g. via Facebook and Twitter) and so that other people can see it when they come to the site.

We’ll also be tweeting good churn from @churnalert, and building up a bank of good examples.


We have (quite a big) wishlist of other stuff we’d like to do with but don’t yet have the time or the money:

  • More press releases collected automatically We’ll be scraping more press releases from the web as we find them. If you know of any good places to find them please let us know
  • More news articles to compare With more resources we’d be able to provide comparisons of the local press as well as the national, by extending the reach of Then we could cover specialist and trade press. Then international…. (OK, we’ll need to draw the line somewhere)
  • Exposing probable churn by cross correlating news articles If we cross correlated news articles using the same methodology we would identify clusters of articles that overlap with one another. This could indicate that these articles may be based on press release. We could then appeal for help to find the release
  • Linking with Now is up and running we can work out how best to link it to We could, for example, indicate when a journalist’s article looks like it might be churn, and link directly from the article on to the press release on which it might be based
  • The Daily Churn Once there are enough people using churnalism, and exposing good churn reasonably quickly, then we’ll be able publish a ‘Daily Churn’, highlighting newspapers and articles that day that appear to be churn.

Tell us what you’d add to this wishlist by emailing

Written by Martin Moore

February 23rd, 2011 at 6:44 pm

The Chilean miners story – a missed opportunity to do foreign reporting on the cheap

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The Chilean miners story is already being talked about as a one of the biggest international stories of 2010. An audience of a billion worldwide. 4.6m live video streams. 82.5 million page views on CNN. 2000 journalists on the ground (from Rory Carroll).

Yet it is also, from the perspective of journalism, a tremendous missed opportunity to experiment with doing foreign reporting on the cheap. Here’s why:

International news is expensive. A foreign bureau costs about £200-300k per year (according to a 2007 Harvard report by Jill Carroll). Even to send a crew of three costs thousands in travel and expenses (particularly if it is remote and requires special equipment – like tents in the Atacama desert).

International news is more difficult to make directly relevant to a domestic audience. It was hard to excite public interest in the US sub-prime market prior to the international financial crisis. And many news organisations have struggled to find a simple and convenient prism through which to frame the world since the Cold War ended.

The days of plush foreign bureaux have passed. Lots of commercial news organisations have cut back on their foreign reporting. Only 4 US newspapers still invest in sustained international reporting (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times). Many other US news organisations have also reduced the amount of time and money they spend (see State of the News Media reports since 2004). There have also been cuts in the international reporting of UK news organisations – though these are much less well recorded (to be partially redressed by a report we’re publishing in two weeks’ time – see bottom of this post).

Those who want to sustain quality foreign reporting have been wracking their brains  trying to work out how do international journalism of the same – or higher – quality but at lower cost. Solana Larsen, in a fascinating recent essay for Nieman Reports, imagines a world without foreign correspondents, where news is ‘told by reporters who are native to the country where events happen’. This would, Larsen argues, provide a more authentic picture from the inside out, a ‘citizen’s perspective’.

Whatever happens, foreign reporting has to change to survive. It has to cost less to collect. News organisations have to be much more flexible and nimble than they have been in the past. They have to be creative about how they source different types of content and access different voices. They need to collaborate with local news organisations, as well as non-news organisations like NGOs. And then they need to convince people of the importance of the news they are reporting.

Which is why the Chilean miners story was a tremendous opportunity to try doing foreign news on the cheap. A chance for news organisations to experiment with new methods and models.

Here was a fantastically compelling human drama that did not need contextualisation for people to understand what was going on. Here was a story with the narrative arc of a reality documentary (lasting 10 weeks – only slightly less than a series of Big Brother). It even had a carefully prepared and choreographed finale where people’s lives really did hang in the balance.

Yet, at the same time, it was a story without much broader public impact (except for the people of Chile). What I mean by that is that, apart from the emotional engagement, this story did not have much in the way of political, economic or social implications for people outside Chile.

Which meant that for news organisations whose central purpose is reporting in the public interest, and who – like everyone else right now – are desperate to work out ways to save money, this story was a great opportunity to try new, less expensive approaches.

So what happened? The opposite. Instead of spending less they spent more, much more. The BBC so overspent on its coverage that it is now considering reducing its reporting budget on events that really are in the public interest and do require lots of contextualisation – like the G20, the Cancun Climate Change conference in December, the Nato summit in Lisbon and the World Economic Forum (see Guardian leaked memo story).

And it wasn’t just about the money. This was also, for the most part, conservative journalism that hugged close to audience expectations and demand. Much of the mainstream coverage wouldn’t have looked out of place a couple of decades ago. There were close knit professional teams (in the BBC’s case 26 people strong), doing much talking to camera, with frequent two-ways updating the audience.

Where were the local reporters? Where were the voices of the Chilean people? Where were the collaborations with other news organisations and with NGOs? Where was the creative use of all the content that was being streamed from the mine and elsewhere?

The result? News organisations have less money to spend on stuff that needs more explanation. They have less to spend on difficult investigations (like Lindsay Hilsum’s recent reporting from the Congo). They have less to spend on other trapped miners.

Organisations like the BBC will be able to ice over the spending in time. But neither they, nor the others who failed to cover the story differently, will find a better opportunity to get experience of doing international reporting in new ways for a good long while.

The Media Standards Trust is publishing a report – a “Shrinking World: the decline of international reporting in the UK press” – in November. If you would like a copy of the report email me and I’ll put you on our list.

Written by Martin Moore

October 19th, 2010 at 10:27 am

How can journalism harness collective public attention?

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There are weeks where you learn a lot. This, for me, has been one of them. I’ve been immersed in talks and discussions about the future of the web – first at the Royal Society in London, then out at the Kavli Centre out in Buckinghamshire (a sort of Bletchley Park type retreat for scientists).

The Kavlie Centre

I’ll let others much smarter and more tech-savvy than me talk about the tech stuff (which you can read about here, and here, with more to come). My particular interest was with what the future of the web means for journalism and public interest news.

On this I learnt two big things. One about the importance of metadata (which I’ve written lots about already). The other about the value of collective attention. Journalists think a lot about individual attention (ie how you grab someone’s attention), and have begun thinking about collective intelligence (ie how the public can help fill the role of the Fourth Estate), but much less about the value of collective attention.

Collective attention, in the sense of lots and lots of people around the world focusing on the same thing, has come of age with the internet. It is one thing to have 10 million people watching an episode of a soap opera on TV. It is another order of magnitude to have 500 million people updating their Facebook profiles.

Luis von Ahn, a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, has thought a lot about collective attention. Ahn has spent the last decade or so mulling over how to use people’s collective intelligence for useful and constructive ends, as he told the audience at the Royal Society on Tuesday.

It started with captcha. You know, that annoying distorted text you have to reproduce when you’re signing up to a web service like gmail.

von Ahn invented captcha to help stop spamming. But, having invented it, he started feeling guilty. Guilty that he was taking up 6-10 seconds of millions of people’s time to do something pretty useless in the bigger scheme of things. Indeed he felt so guilty that he decided to reinvent captcha so that it would do something useful.

Captcha uses human intelligence to interpret something a computer can’t. A computer cannot read horribly distorted letters and numbers, a human can. What else can a human read but a computer can’t, von Ahn asked himself. Old books. Old books and manuscripts are often hand written, or typed in fonts that are incomprehensible to computers. This doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a library reading books but is a real problem if you want to digitise them and make them widely available on the net.

But what if you could take the words from old books that a computer can’t read, and put them into captcha? That way you can harness human intelligence towards a constructive end. So this is what von Ahn did.

Having come up with the idea and how to do it he then did a deal with Google, which made captcha (now renamed ‘re-captcha’) freely available to others – provided it could collect the words people typed in for use in digitising books.

There are now 750 million people a year typing re-captchas. That means 750 million people interpreting words scanned from old books. That translates into about 2 million books now being digitised each year.

Luis von Ahn is not alone. Many others are trying to harness the collective attention (nb see The Social Computer experiment), but what about public interest journalism? has recently started using collective attention to help fund stories. The site (run by the endlessly creative thinking David Cohn) enables people to donate money for news stories they want investigated. The problem is, it turns out lots of people want things investigated but don’t have much money to donate (e.g. students). So Cohn got around this by asking them to donate time rather than money.

If they take the time to fill in a survey then they earn ‘credits’ which they can then donate to an investigation. The credits translate into real money thanks to partnerships has organized with various companies.

Collective intelligence is slightly different. With collective attention you’re not asking too much of the public, outside a little bit of their attention. With collective intelligence you’re asking the public to perform a task – scrutinize public documents for example. The Guardian has done this with MPs expenses. The Straight Choice did this in a different way by crowd sourcing election materials. In the internet age there is clearly a big role for collective intelligence, but so is there for collective attention (though the line between the two will often be blurred).

Many news websites now count their audiences in the tens of millions each month. Yet despite these astonishing numbers they find it very hard to earn enough in advertising revenue to fund original journalism. Maybe they need to be more creative about how they harness collective intelligence.

Written by Martin Moore

October 1st, 2010 at 4:08 pm