Module JG060

Churnalism
 

Module author

Wayne Larsen

Concordia University
Canada

Learning objectives After studying this course, you will be able to:
  • Define churnalism and explain what is critical about it;
  • Explain the reasons why good journalistic inquiry isn't always a given fact any more;
  • Give an overview of the historic developments that led to churnalism;
  • Reflect churnalism critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Churnalism

 

Why Open School of Journalism believes that Churnalism is important zu know

Churnalism is a relatively new term that was first used by Waseem Zakir, a BBC journalist, in 2008. It can have different meanings, but all of its variations share one thing in common: Churnalism applies to media outlets that copy information from an external source – sometimes verbatim – without vetting the information's credibility.

Though the word was first coined in 2008, the practice has been around much longer than that. But as the Internet has come to dominate the way many people consume media, churnalism has become more widespread. It hasn't helped that many reputable publications have made countless layoffs as the newspaper industry in particular has struggled to monetize the Internet, which coupled with the huge body of information made accessible with only a few clicks on the Internet, have made churnalism a norm in today's media.

Many stories that are ‘churned,' or turned around and published by major outlets without being fact-checked, are first written by corporations or PR firms. These companies send out scores of press releases through major databases such as PR News Web, and PR Newswire. Many Fortune 500 companies also directly disseminate their own press releases to media outlets, who may run them without doing completing the due diligence expected of journalists. This diligence includes tracking information to its source, whether that be a scientific study published in a journal, a speech given by a public figure, or a claim made by a citizen.

The problem with churnalism is that readers who trust major outlets that may be practicing churnalism may not know that the information they're reading actually came from a corporation. Corporations have a set goal or agenda when writing the press release. This can cause the promotion of information that hasn't been fact-checked by journalists and isn't questioned by readers. Thus readers are consuming biased information without knowing it.

One filmmaker in the U.K. has taken it upon himself to tackle the problem of churnalism, or at least poke fun at media outlets that don't vet their stories properly. According to a story about churnalism in the Guardian, Chris Atkins slipped past the reporters and editors at the BBC by sending them a fictitious story about the prime minister's new cat. The story ran in multiple news outlets including the Daily Mail, which has since taken down the story (but you can tell from the URL that they did in fact run it). The fictitious story that Atkins conceived declared that the prime minister's new cat was in fact stolen from a fake man's aunt. Atkins set up a fake Facebook account under the name Tim Sutcliffe, and used the account to claim the cat had been stolen from the man's aunt.

Before realizing the story was fake, multiple news outlets had run it, and it had even made Gaby Logan's BBC Live show, according to the Guardian story.

Though churnalism is a widespread and even growing problem, there are organizations that are attempting to combat it. The Sunlight Foundation recently created a website that allows users to copy text into a search box to determine if it's been copied from other sources on the Internet. After the search, the site reveals how many characters the text shares with other sites, and which sites the text has appeared on. It can be a handy tool for readers who are unsure if what they're reading is legitimate journalism or journalism that has been copied and published.

The Sunlight Foundation's site can be a reasonable measure to take against churnalism, but it can sometimes wrongly match text to speeches that a journalist used quotes from in a story. Though this is not churnalism, it can be a handy way to read script's of the speech that a journalist refers to in a story to understand its full context and to better understand why the journalist chose to go with a particular line for a quote rather than another in a given story.

Though the Sunlight Foundation's website can be incredibly useful to readers, it has likely not been a hit with PR firms and journalists who practice churnalism. In an article on Ars Technica's website, Jonathan Gitlin writes about a particular instance where a news outlet tried to get away with churnalism and didn't. In this instance of churnalism, www.sciencedaily.com ran a story about a study that had found the classic game of Tetris could help treat lazy eye disorder. According to Gitlin's article, Sunlight's website —churnalism.com — found that it matched a press release by the EurekaAlert! The article on Science Daily took entire chunks from the press release and republished it as their own.