We all know that the journalism industry is amidst great change. Shrinking budgets, smaller workforces, and the 24-hour news cycle of a 2.0 world all add up to a higher pressure to deliver more with less.
While more content is created for our consumption, these circumstances can lead to shortcuts that can cost a journalist their credibility and even their jobs. One of these shortcuts has become so prevalent, it’s been assigned its own moniker: Churnalism.
According to Churnalism.com, “Churnalism is a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.” It’s become so prevalent, Churnalism.com even features a “churn engine to distinguish journalism from churnalism.”
I chatted briefly with our new team member, Ben Marrone, who came from the world of journalism before he joined us, to get his thoughts on churnalism, plagiarism and the gray area in-between.
“PR people are giving you content with the explicit aim of you using it in a story, whereas plagiarism involves stealing it,” he said.
“Ooo that’s good. Say that again, but slower,” I told him, as my fingers flew over the keyboard. “Wait…is this plagiarism?”
That gave us both a pause.
“What if I attributed you?” I asked, as I hastily typed quotation marks.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s mostly about attribution – where is this information coming from?”
So where is the line drawn when a reporter uses a press release for his or her article? What happens if we, as PR professionals, do our job so well that our release encompasses a great hook or catchy phrasing? Must the journalist re-invent the wheel? Or how much information can the journalist take from the release without blurring that line between background info and plagiarism?
Let’s face it – as PR professionals, our job is to get positive coverage for our clients. We can’t be unbiased as long as we are getting paid to get our client’s name or product in the press. No matter how well written a release may be, there will always be a conflict of interest in passing off a press release as an article. As Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, writes, “this material, whether or not it is truthful, is designed specifically to promote or suppress stories in order to serve the interests of political, commercial and other groups.”
But coming back to Ben’s words, it’s about attribution – distinguishing between independent content and content that is written by people who have been paid by the company they’re writing about. As Martin Moore in his piece for the Columbia Journalism Review notes, churnalism has its place and time – when it comes to the public interest, such as major government announcements or the release of a cool consumer product. But he says very few news outlets distinguish between a press release and a news article, or put the press release into its proper context.
“In the past, this lack of transparency was partly excusable given space constraints and given that newspapers never aspired to academic standards of sourcing. But now, given that many press releases are published online and are so easy to link to, any news outlet that wants to could easily link to a press release from the article,” writes.
So with the state of journalism today, it looks like churnalism isn’t going anywhere soon. The question is: how do we differentiate between news and releases? According to Moore, it takes honesty – being clear about the source of the news gives readers the ability to judge whether news has an agenda or whether it should be taken seriously.
As one of my friends – who works as a reporter for a major tech publication – said: “I think [churnalism] reflects how the world has changed. I think journalists have to change with the times, and that means being honest about what you are putting out there.”