To hear Martin Moore tell it, the BBC is guilty. So are newspapers like the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph—and dozens of other media.
All of them have cranked out “churnalism,” a mainstream news story that differs little from the press release that sparked it, says Moore, director of Media Standards Trust.
So Media Standards Trust, a British organization that seeks to boost journalistic standards, has roiled the PR and communications industry in the U.K. with a website called Churnalism.com, which enables the public to check how much of press releases are cribbed in news stories.
Some PR insiders have said the site is issuing unfair hits; others say it points to the need for higher standards of integrity and fact-checking among communicators themselves.
Alan Twigg, a managing partner at Seventy Seven PR, knocked Churnalism.com in PR Weekly UK for implying that “getting coverage is a doddle and that PROs are taking over the media. If only it was that easy. Just try to sell in every day and build relationships with journalists over months and years.”
Others suggest that Churnalism.com can serve a purpose for the PR industry, too. Contacted by e-mail, Gareth Thomas of Brands2Life told Ragan.com that the Internet has created more space to fill with the copy of fewer staff reporters, allowing unscrupulous PR firms to plant dubious stories. They damage the industry’s credibility, he argues.
“So a version of churnalism.com that exposed factually incorrect press releases would be welcomed and should help to weed out the fact from the fiction,” Thomas wrote.
What’s the big deal?
Churnalism.com came about to prove a point about the often cozy relationship between reporters and public relations professionals, as Moore details in an article for Columbia Journalism Review.
“Every time we spoke to anyone about the fact that there was this incredible amount of PR material within the press, people looked sort of quite shocked and very surprised, and many were quite disbelieving,” Moore told Ragan.com.
Churnalism.com enables users to paste in a press release or an entry from Wikipedia and see how much of it is quoted in news stories. Because many press releases don’t end up on the Web but in the in-boxes of reporters, the site works with the help of crowd-sourcing, saving the press releases pasted in by searchers.
The site graphically demonstrates the overlap between story and press release, revealing the percentage of the promotional copy that ended up in the story.
Many corporate communicators aren’t taking Churnalism.com lightly. PR Weekly UK stated that the website “is threatening to undermine the PR profession.”
It’s not hard to see why the site would cause squirming in the British media. The Daily Mail, for one, ran a story in February titled, “Why the Prodigal Daughter always gets a cool welcome but son is greeted with open arms.” It cites a study showing that mothers are happy to have an adult son return home but “will do their best to avoid having their daughter do the same.”
The reason for this, the Daily Mail reported, is that boys are more likely to pay rent, pitch in with the housework and take Mum’s advice. Bylined “Daily Mail Reporter,” the story quoted a London-based clinical psychiatrist who lamented, “It’s not surprising how much boys seem to get away with compared to girls when it comes to their parents. Boys traditionally are always treated very differently to their female siblings.”
Unfair! Except that the quote and much of the story came from a press release based on a report commissioned by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Churnalism.com reveals. Fox issued the study to call attention to the DVD release of the movie “Cyrus.”
The Daily Mail did not immediately respond to an e-mail from Ragan.com seeking comment.
Working with film director Chris Atkins, Churnalism.com sought to demonstrate how gullible the media are by issuing a hoax press release for a “chastity garter,” to be worn by women while their partners were away, Moore wrote in CJR. If the woman’s pulse rose too high or her skin moisture passed a particular level, a text message would automatically be sent to her partner, the press release read.
“The story then went global, being published in the Times of India, CNET news, Express.de (Germany), Mako.il (Israel), Florida Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among others,” he wrote.
Although Churnalism doesn’t search media in the United States, Moore hopes to expand the website across the Atlantic. The trust has received grants from media foundations in America.
Churnalism’s Moore admits some areas are difficult to judge. Police stories tend to use language similar to the rather dry press releases, and similar crimes in different areas may use standard wording.
Although some PR communicators have been defensive about Churnalism.com, Moore insists that it’s in everyone’s interest to be more transparent. If PR is too successful in the leading the press by the nose, it’s self-defeating, he argues, because the media become discredited.
“The public are aware enough to realize they are reading stuff that is predominately puff pieces,” Moore says. “They’re the ones who become less and less interested and feel they’re being manipulated.”