Find out when journalists are copying paragraphs from press releases, or using Wikipedia in place of research. Churnalism is a website – and a browser extension – that allows you to find out when reporters were lazy about a particular story.
News is like sausage: it’s sometimes best to not know how it’s made, even in the best of times. And these are far from the best of times: as budgets for reporting slim around around the world, an increasing number of reporters resort to what known as “churnalism” – writing stories that are basically a rehash of a press release. This means that you, the reader, are essentially reading exactly what a given interest group wants you to read.
A press release is an article of sorts, usually written by the PR team of a company, politician or any entity with a story to tell. Sent to reporters with a particular angle in mind, these documents are intended to influence the manner of reporting by providing quotes and information from the party’s point of view. In theory this should just be one resource among many for a reporter, but sometimes (usually to fill space) reporters will simply re-word and re-print what’s in the release. It’s easier.
This is nothing new – it’s a problem as old as deadlines. What is new is how easy it is for readers to compare articles with press releases. Previously sent only to reporters, these days press releases are widely available online. Churnalism compares the news you’re reading with a database of press releases, showing you when reporters are simply reprinting what marketers want them to print. Even better – it also attempts to point out when a given piece of information was copied from Wikipedia.
This isn’t meant to tell you a particular article is good or bad, but it is a useful tool if you want to be a savvy consumer of news. Knowing whether a reporter picked up the phone to find something out, or simply read a press release, shows you how engaged a writer is with a subject.
Before we really get into things I should point this out: there are currently two major Churnalism sites on the web. The original is UK-based, and compares articles to press releases there as well as articles on the BBC (an organization some UK news outlets are derivative of, according to Churnalism.)
Check out the UK version of Churnalism here. You’ll need to copy articles and paste them here.
This is a great resource if you’re in the UK, but I happen to be US-based. Happily for me the Sunlight Foundation has put together an American version of the service:
This site uses an American database of press releases, but otherwise works the same. Simply copy any article and paste it here – if a lot of the article matches a database of press releases, this will be pointed out to you. It’s up to you, the user, to decide whether the information copied from the press release biases the piece.
(Want a service like this in your country? You’ll need to convince someone to build it, then, or build it yourself.)
The Sunlight Foundation version of the site is noteworthy because of its browser plugin. Offered for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, this tool scans every new article. With this installed you’re automatically notified anytime an article seems a derivative of a press release. Here’s what that looks like:
When something like this appears you can compare the article to the press release, side-by-side. This allows you to see the press-release in context, and judge for yourself whether the journalist did enough to supplement the point of view it presents.
Again: Churnalism warning you about an article doesn’t mean it’s “bad” – much of the time the only thing you’ll see in an article is a quote from the release. This probably means the reporter didn’t talk to the people in question, but it’s up to you to determine whether this matters.
I’ve been using this for a week, and rarely see warnings, but that might depend on where you regularly get your news from. If an article is free of any copypasta you’ll see green scissors in the address bar:
By default Churnalism only shows up for particular sites. You can add other sites in the extension’s preferences.
Be sure to check the “Local News Sources” button if you frequent such sites, and to manually add any sites that don’t show up. You’ll know the extension is working on a given site if you see scissors in the address bar.
Ready to try out the Churnalism browser extension? Head to the Churnalism download page to get started. As mentioned, the extension works for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer – and is offered by the American version of Churnalism (does not work with UK press releases).
If you’re trying to be mindful of your terrible information diet , a tool like this is invaluable. By pointing out articles that basically re-print marketing material, Churnalism helps you not to digest anything blatantly designed to make you think a certain way – at least, not without your knowledge.
It doesn’t matter, by the way, which “side” put out the press release – you deserve better than regurgitated marketing material. At least, that’s what I think – but I want to know what you think. Is Churnalism a worthwhile tool? Or is it arbitrary in the articles it points out? Let’s discuss the tool in the comments below.