Churnalism Sorts Original Journalism From Repackaged Press Releases

The Sunlight Foundation is on to you.
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The Sunlight Foundation is on to you.


"This is just a repackaged press release." That's one of the most common complaints about the way that most media outlets cover the social and behavioral sciences—and even the hard sciences, really.

The primary reason for that? Most working journalists have a limited understanding of many of the subjects they're often asked to write about. I would even argue that this—the ability to explore and report and write about something new every day—is a key motivator for many of us in the profession. (It's certainly why I dumped my early ambitions of working as a particle physicist. Quarks, all day? No thanks.) The problem, of course, is that as budgets and revenue streams shrink and sometimes disappear altogether, those of us left standing have been forced to do more, faster. And the first thing that falls away from that list—explore and report and write—is the reporting.

"You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote."

And we turn to others to do the work for us.

That's how you end up with churnalism, the process of regurgitating press releases. "You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote," BBC journalist Waseem Zakir, who is widely credited with coining the term, told Tony Harcup for his 2004 book, Journalism: Principles and Practice. "It's affecting every newsroom in the country and reporters are becoming churnalists." (Unable to obtain a copy of Harcup's book on short notice, I took that passage from the Churnalism page on Wikipedia, but I checked it against multiple references, including a 2011 Martin Robbins column for The Guardian and the blog of Jon Slattery, who has written about churnalism on at least a few occasions over the last five years.)

A new tool released today by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit obsessed with openness and transparency, promises to call greater attention to this "work." Accessed through a stand-alone site or used as a browser extension, Churnalism compares any text against its database of documents, which includes a majority of the Wikipedia archive and press releases from PR News Web, PR Newswire, EurekaAlert!, and "a sampling of Fortune 500 companies," among many other sources, according to an explainer from Sunlight's Nicko Margolies. (Full YouTube tutorial embedded below, with technical details from Drew Vogel, one of Churnalism's developers, available here.)

When the tool detects a "churn," you'll be able to compare the two texts side-by-side, with passages that appear to be copied verbatim highlighted and easy to track. Here's an example of a story that ran this past October on (though it originally appeared on Universe Today). You can see that the majority of the second half of the story was repurposed from a EurekaAlert! press release. Earlier today, Web developer Kaitlin Devine explained to The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen (a former colleague of mine) that science press releases tend to be plagiarized more often than others. "[T]he language around the findings in those is so specific that it becomes very hard to reinterpret it," Devine offered as one possible explanation.

I don't see any real issue with using a press release as a starting point for an article. They point us to very real discoveries, summarize the findings of important studies, and alert us to new and important work. But we must keep in mind, always, that they are marketing materials. The press release mentioned in the example above? It was distributed by the Carnegie Institution and told of exciting new work from a team of astronomers led by ... the director of the Carnegie Observatories. It mentioned the Carnegie Institution or Carnegie scientists no fewer than six times. In "reinterpreting" that release for Universe Today, the "writer" only mentioned Carnegie once, but she didn't bother—it appears—to question or challenge any of the information fed to her.

And I'm OK with that, too. There are other ways for a journalist to add value to a story: by conducting original reporting, placing the material provided by the press release in a larger context, inserting an informed opinion. What I'm not comfortable with is the complete lack of transparency. At no point in the Universe Today story is it noted that the quotations used, and the information presented, were obtained through a single press release. Even if the story wasn't questioned, didn't add context, and was without opinion, readers would know how to interpret it—and could determine for themselves how much to believe. Above all, trust the intelligence of your reader. Especially now, because, thanks to the Sunlight Foundation and Churnalism, they can find you out.

A Note About Pacific Standard: Our goal here is to make the latest findings and big ideas from the social and behavioral sciences accessible to a wide audience. Because of that, we're constantly receiving and sifting through press releases—from government agencies, university departments, and others—so we're certainly not immune to criticism related to churnalism. Know, though, that we make a conscious effort to slow ourselves down and find the places we can add value, to read the original studies and compare them to the body of work, and to be selective about what we cover and how we cover it. Before I started writing this, I ran a bunch of our recent pieces through Churnalism. So far, we're clean.