News in the Age of Churnalism

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According to Pew Charitable Trust’s 2008 “State of the News Media” special report on public attitudes toward the news media, “Majorities of Americans continued to say that journalists are often inaccurate (55 percent), do not care about the people they report on (53 percent), are biased (55 percent), one-sided (66 percent) and try to cover up their mistakes (63 percent).” It’s clear that much of the public deems journalists untrustworthy. As a recent grad from a journalism school, it’s painful to admit how fallible the news industry can be. One near-omnipresent snare for journalists–and a scourge of journalistic integrity–is the facile use of press releases to write stories, what has been dubbed “churnalism.”

The UK-based Media Standards Trust, “an independent registered charity which aims to foster high standards in news media on behalf of the public,” developed a website called Churnalism so that journalists and consumers can discern spin from news. “The site compresses all articles published on [UK] national newspaper websites . . . and then stores them in a fast access database,” according to the Trust’s website. “If the engine finds any articles where the similarity is greater than 20 percent, then it suggests the article may be churn.”

Expecting a snide, skeptical, uninterested response from the ostensibly guilty journalists, Media Standards Trust baited the news cycle with a discreetly published, fake press release for an unbelievable product. The Trust’s Martin Moore elaborated during an interview on WNYC’s On the Media:

Chris [Atkins, a collaborator with the Trust] invented what he called the “chastity garter belt,” which a woman would put around her thigh and had built-in technology which would record, by various clever scientific means, like her, her rising pulse rate and, and moisture levels on her leg, whether or not she was about to be unfaithful. And if she was, it would text a message to her partner warning him, so he could rush back and either forestall or catch, catch her before she did so.

Like hungry goldfish, the press gobbled the plump worm dangling before them. Chicago’s WGN-TV ran a short segment and, as Moore detailed during the WNYC interview, “The story was picked up by The Times of India, in the States, in Slovakia, in Greece, in Israel, all around the world.”

That, folks, is called egg on the face.

As an end note, just a reminder the public shouldn’t only be concerned with sneaky, unverified pitches from snake-oil retailers. “Not all churnalism comes from commercial sources,” warns the Columbia Journalism Review. “Much of it has political sources: public authorities trying to spin bad news, medical firms trying to obscure poor results, and political lobbying groups.”

For what it’s worth, 55 percent of this post was cut and pasted from various websites and not independently fact-checked.

Sources: Columbia Journalism Review, On the Media

Image by quinn.anya, licensed under Creative Commons.

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