Churnalism: Have journalists given up their role to PR firms?

In the race for online eyeballs, the cardinal rule is that whoever publishes a story first gains an upper hand. Add to this the nature and operating style of many online news websites and operations: lean teams, a preference of volume over quality, and looser editorial standards (these are value judgements, not empirical observations). The last point, especially, reflects the low barriers of entry — anyone can start a website regardless of his or her training or knowledge of basic journalism ethics.

This is not to claim that these problems are exclusive to only digital-native platforms. They cut across, and are reactions to similar forces. A common issue is churnalism.

Churnalism is a form of journalism in which news articles are copied directly from press releases, stories provided by news agencies, and other forms of pre-packaged material.

One recent example is a story published in the first week of this month by at least three Ugandan news outlets. Its main argument was that oral nicotine products are “infinitely better” than smoking. Putting the validity of the claim aside, the publications could have handled the story better.

The source of the story was a press release from the Campaign for Safer Alternatives, a “pan-African non-governmental member organisation dedicated to achieving 100% smoke-free environments in Africa”. While the Daily Monitor did some editing on the release, moving sentences and paragraphs here and there, the other two – the East African Business Week and PML Daily – published it in its entirety, only removing the “Notes to editor” section.

This is a subversion of the way things are usually done. Many stories in the newsroom, especially features and enterprise reports, start as a pitch – an idea that a reporter sells to an editor. Sometimes it is not bought. But if the editor thinks the pitch is viable, he or she will usually help to refine it, taking into consideration several ethical issues and whether it fits the needs and style of the publication.

One wonders, at this point, how much thought goes into publishing a press release in its entirety, questionable claims and all. What is the difference between four or five news platforms running exactly the same story, with the same headline? What is the unique selling proposition of each of them? Where is the value added?

Churnalism, the practice, doesn’t bother much about such questions. Reporters or editors receive a story, often a press release from a public relations company or a campaign group and republish it with little change. Sometimes it is stories from news agencies.

It is not forbidden to copy text from press releases because they are an integral part of news collection. For example, a statement from the President’s office with a speech he has recently made, or an economic update from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund has useful and relevant information and can be quoted. Or any other statement, for that matter. The problem is how it is done.

However, it’s a journalist’s job to contextualise the news. At the very least, reporters should show who said what or say where the information they are reporting came from, instead of passing it off as something they went out to gather. In the case of the aforementioned stories, it is dishonest to leave out the fact that the Campaign for Safer Alternatives is a lobby group exclusively funded by tobacco product manufacturers.

A lot has been said about the growth of public relations at the expense of journalism. The same tools that make it easy to create and market new websites or push adverts to neatly defined demographics are attractive not only to journalists but also those who want to influence how the masses think or act. The news media is just another avenue to reach target audiences, behind other digital platforms.

But it is probably the most powerful, largely because of the public’s trust in journalism. By publishing promotional material as news, the media is abusing the public’s trust. And the brutal irony is that at least Facebook and Google, the dominant ad-serving platforms, are required by the law to label adverts and differentiate them from other content.

How can a reporter avoid churnalism?

Mallary Jean Tenore, the managing editor of the Poynter Institute website, says that journalists can use press releases effectively if they follow the following tips:

  • Think of press releases as a good starting point. Journalists still need to use their traditional reporting skills to follow up with the sources and fact-check the information they get. “Anyone can paraphrase or quote from a release. As a reporter, you have the skills to take it a step further.”
  • Talk with your editor about paraphrasing/quoting from press releases. “Having discussions about how to use press releases can give you a better understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable in your newsroom. It’s fine to use press releases in stories, as long as you’re transparent with your audience about where you got the information. Adding attribution lets your audience know where the information originated.”
  • Determine whether the release is newsworthy. “When you get a release, ask yourself: Is this news relevant to my audience? Is the release worth a brief post? A longer story? A post and a longer follow-up story? Something more? Nothing at all? (At Poynter.org, we’ve taken all of these approaches.)”
  • Prosecute the press release. Press releases are often promotional. It’s up to you to make sure you’re not simply furthering an organization’s or person’s agenda. When reading press releases, look for gaps and try to fill them.”
  • Make the story your own. “Follow up with the person who sent the release or with the people quoted in it to get quotes that are different from the ones that everyone else will have. When necessary, add analysis and context that will help advance the information in the release.

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Raymond Mpubani is ACME’s Programme Officer for Research & Media Monitoring.

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