Latest on the ‘churnalism’ debate – the apparently increasing practice of newspaper and website journalists producing copy by the simple expedient of rewriting – or in some cases just reprinting – press releases, avoiding the tedious process of actually having to bother to check any facts. A new website created by a charity called the Media Standards Trust makes it simple to compare the text of any press release with a database of millions of newspaper articles, to reveal the degree of overlap or repetition.
What does this prove? Probably not quite as much as the MST would like us to think, though it is no bad thing to have someone willing keep an eye on this sort of thing, to try to halt its spread. Firstly, journalists are not so much lazy as overworked. Typically there are fewer reporters having to write more articles than in the past, and there is enormous pressure for them to get material online before somebody else does – this will inevitably lead to shortcuts. More than ever, PR firms are becoming content creators – ideal for those papers (all of them) with websites with an infinite amount of space to fill.
Secondly, how do you define ‘PR content’ – does a ‘statement’ (which might be from the Bank of England on interest rates, or Shell on its profit figures) become ‘PR’ just because it is issued in a press release? How else are these sorts of facts to be made public, and who else is the journalist supposed to check with other than the organisation that issued the release? (Of course reporters can and do go for outside ‘experts’ for comment on what is released by such organisations).
The MST points out that a number of bogus news stories it helped to disseminate were picked up, unchecked, as real by (amongst others) The Sun, the BBC and the Daily Mail website. This of course is a shame, but in a world where the bizarre is increasingly mundane it is often very hard to tell fact from fiction, particularly when someone is deliberately trying to pull the wool over a reporter’s eyes. Yesterday for instance, as the site was launched, a story appeared on BBC London News about ice cream made from breast milk (a PR stunt to be sure, but apparently true).
Final point: could it be that many of those taking the moral high ground, criticising lax journalistic practices, are also those most unhappy at the idea of charging for online content? If we come to expect ‘free news’, where are all the resources to properly check these stories going to come from?