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.