Wikipedia: “Churnalism is a form of journalism in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking.”
The term has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined it in 2008, but the issues of press release plagiarism and PR manipulation of the media has existed even longer. I write about it today because I haven’t done so before, because I’m attending the CIPR NI Media Awards this week and because it was brought to my attention again yesterday when @DavySims tweeted a link to this interesting blog post:
The author titled the blog post “PR person to editor: Don’t put your byline on our press releases that you’ve rewritten.”
It is a complaint that is both agreed with and disagreed with by many PROs. On the one hand, I empathise with the frustration of local PR folk researching, writing, editing and approving articles for local media, only to see your hard work appear verbatim alongside a journalist’s name. This is particularly frustrating when you’re a PR who also considers themselves a writer (like moi). I can’t exactly compile a portfolio of my published writing when my name doesn’t appear anywhere on it.
On the other hand, it’s my job (well, one among many) to secure promotion through media coverage for the organisation I work for, as one way to educate the public about their services, successes and campaigning issues. As long as the organisation is cited then I have in essence succeeded with my press release. Does the lack of editing mean the journalist was lazy or time pressured? Or does it simply mean I did such a good job that they were happy to use my words as their own?
I like to think it’s the latter.
The practice was recognised as far back as 1982 when Oscar H. Gandy’s book Beyond Agenda Setting introduced the concept of “information subsidy.” He explained that it was only rational to expect journalists to accept informative materials from PR professionals.
In 2011, the issue came to the fore publicly when American journalist Steve Penn sued McClatchy Newspapers for $25,000 plus damages after The Kansas Star sacked him for lifting material from press releases. Following the media storm, Gerard Corbett, Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, issued a statement saying a press release without attribution wasn’t plagiarism, that it was expected by PROs.
In the same year in the UK, the website churnalism.com, created by charity the Media Standards Trust, was launched. It allowed PROs to paste their press release snippets into a search engine and compared the text with an article database to find examples of “churn”. It also allowed the public to “test” the PR influence/journalistic integrity of the news they were reading.
It’s a practice that was bound to grow in an age of ever-decreasing news desks. However, it could yield potential problems in an age that is also focussed on ever-increasing demands for transparency from the public. They want to know who is really peddling the news agenda and they expect assurity that the media they are consuming has been fact-checked.
PR engagement with the media is not manipulation, or spin. It allows small organisations without big advertising budgets to gain media coverage. As a consequence, PR reduces the cost of journalism. But if PR is seen to be exerting too much control in the media then it hurts our profession as much as theirs, because it discredits them. Therefore PR people have a vested interest in supporting journalism because despite the breadth of other work we do, without the media we would no doubt be out of a job.
With that in mind, after many years working with journalists (feel free to replace “working with” as “pestering” if you are a journalist), I can wholeheartedly say that I don’t object to anyone putting their name to my story. I look forward to my first Media Awards, where the PR industry will acknowledge the outstanding work of media professionals in Northern Ireland. I hope my esteemed colleagues in the media landscape can appreciate that there is much more to my job than writing press release copy in the same way that I respect the fact that there is much more to their job than “copy and paste.”
Let’s be friends!