Dr Moore’s churnalism-spotting machine

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has just launched an amusing – if slightly terrifying – device which matches the words of a news story with the text of the relevant press release. Lo and behold, there is often a large overlap. “Churnalism” can be seen and measured.

Any reservations I might have about this aren’t about the idea of churnalism. Over a long period, many news journalists came to be expected to turn out more and more pieces or writing or broadcasting per day and the growing pressures have been particularly felt in regional media. Less research went into the journalism and more and more reporting was the same, often the very same words. The journalism’s quality fell. Audiences noted the fall in the value of what they were getting.

I’ve got two quibbles with the current software that the MST has now launched. First, it’s bit crude. It determines matching text overlap (between story and press release) and christens the result churnalism. OK, that will often reveal lazy reporting. But the fact that much news reporting is routine (and it always has been) doesn’t mean that it is badly done or valueless to the reader.

Number 99 in the current list of top press release for the past three months happens to concern driver insurance. Not very surprisingly the numerous papers which report this (Telegraph, Scotsman, Financial Times) use quite a few words from the wording of the government press release. In this case, the reporters had been doing their job – a modest one – of relaying public service information in pretty much the words that government officials had chosen. As Dan Sabbagh says here, journalism includes summarising.

My second doubt is over whether this kind of device might (unintentionally) discourage a development which I think is the natural outcome of journalism online: footnotes. We think of footnotes as belonging to books and academic articles. But that’s because they consume space and are fiddly to place on the page. Online makes those problems go away. There are plenty of sources which a reporter can’t disclose, but there’s every reason why quality reporting should routinely and habitually carry a live link to the source material when it’s in the open. I fully expect that to be normal practice before long. Would a serious newspaper care to lead by example?

Churnalism-spotting machines might discourage people from spreading this practice from a misplaced fear that they will be (wrongly) identified as churnalists. But on balance, that doesn’t seem very likely. Especially when weighed against the advantages that the MST software brings with the opportunity to spot people who are pretending to do research when they are actually cutting and pasting. Transparency wins.

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5 comments

  1. “every reason why quality reporting shouldn’t routinely and habitually carry a live link to the source material” … “should”?

  2. To be fair, on the driver insurance example you cite, the engine doesn’t give any of the stories more than a 1 out of 3 churn rating (labelled as “possibly”). I agree it can give some odd results though – particularly when long direct quotes have been taken from the press release.

  3. Interesting and reflective piece as ever George – and much appreciate the vote for transparency.

    On your two reflections. You’re absolutely right that there are lots of examples of press releases that you would expect – and want – to be published (i.e. medical breakthroughs and things). And often you wouldn’t want these messed about with (although obviously verified and contextualised). Mind you, even in these cases it would be good if the articles linked to source (which most currently don’t).

    And that leads me to your second reflection about footnotes. I’d hope (and could well be proved wrong) that this should encourage linking to source rather than the opposite – especially as the churn engine looks for overlapping text, not for links to source.

    Good example of this at the bottom of Dom Ponsford’s piece on Press Gazette – http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=46729&c=1

    It’d great if this became standard practice.

  4. I agree that the churnalism.com software engine is crude, but I think the key issue here is transparency. You say that journalists who use press releases (though there are also academic studies that clearly shows that “use” often means “copies verbatim without citing a source”) do not necessarily do a bad job, and that is true in many cases. The information is there, it’s relevant, why not use it? But the problem as I see it is that in the old days of journalism, members of the audience had no way of seeing that this was the case, and I do think the practice of extensively copying press releases is relevant for how readers should judge news stories. In fact, journalists have historically been very unwilling to allow any insight into the newsmaking process – it is normally entirely impossible for audiences to judge the amount of actual work, fact-checking etc that has gone into any given news items. So from that point of view I think a crude transparency tool is better than none.

    Fully agree with your point on footnotes. Online journalism could use way more of those.