Website names and shames top churnalists

The Media Standards Trust has launched a website which aims to highlight the increasing use of churnalism in the world of press.

Churnalism, where press releases are pilfered for the use of news, let the team down when it comes to digital journalism. Near identical information and a disregard for scoops, instead favouring the honourable embargo, often appear all over the internet like a corporate rash – and the likes of Private Eye have been calling out some of the crap that makes it to the nationals.

According to the Guardian,, created by the Media Standards Trust to curb copied content, allows the comparison of news articles with a database that holds over three million articles, before giving a ‘churn rating’ that lets you know how much rubbish has been recycled.

MST director Martin Moore says that the site will let the public know just how much of what they read has been churned from elsewhere. It’s a common misconception, for example, that quoted CEOs or similar are always talking to the press. Block quotes offered by swathes of “business leaders” – everyone’s a leader – are made up by communications teams and then passed around the offices to get the proverbial rubber-stamp. 

“People don’t realise how much churn they’re being fed every day,” we ironically quote Moore as saying to the Guardian. “Hopefully this will be an eye-opener.”

While Moore accepts that press releases can play a vital role in providing, well, news – they shouldn’t be used as the sole resource for an article. Public relations is a tough job and one side of the same media coin. Although trendy social media agencies will suggest in blog posts on Mashable that the days of needing PR are dead and gone, hacks and flacks do need each other, to a degree.

Many highly regarded online and print publications are guilty of purloining content from press releases, with BBC Online named and shamed. The Daily Mail reportedly lifted 98 percent from one press release for a throwaway story, and the Guardian itself likes to talk up Waitrose over Asda or Tesco.

The point is illustrated to rather hilarious effect on a video posted on the Guardian website which shows how a fictitious press release regarding a ‘penazzle’ (the male equivalent of the ‘vajazzle’) was picked up by all and sundry. It was a hoax and cooked up only a couple of hours before being issued to the press.

Film-maker Chris Atkins also managed to hoodwink the Beeb into believing a concocted story about the Downing Street cat belonging to the aunt of a fictitious ‘Tim Sutcliffe’, with the story then appearing as fact in major mainstream news in England such as that reliable bible for paranoid middle England, the Daily Mail.

You can also see here how Atkins, who is not involved in the churnalism project, was able to fool the entire UK press into believing a fake video of ‘urban foxhunting’ at the height of the press blood-lust for anti-fox stories last year, mirroring media satire comedy Brass Eye. We eagerly await the sweet spot where the Media Trust tells TechEye we’ve been had.

But with more people reportedly working in PR now than journalism it appears days may be numbered for real journalism.

Though perhaps things could be worse.

The thorny subject of authorial ownership was highlighted by a recent test in which a software programme attempted to allocate a press release to crowdsourcing service Mechanical Turk, with the intention of finding out whether quality journalism could be completed by large numbers of human drones directed by a computer overlord.