So have you checked out Churnalism.com yet? It’s quite fun and, let’s face it, overdue.
The worst cases are literally Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V jobs, which is pretty bad (it’s actually a bit tricky to dig up shocking examples on the site for yourself – most of the good ones I’ve seen have been linked to from elsewhere).
Steven Baxter offers some interesting comment on churnalism in his New Statesman blog. Baxter says the most important thing is how readers feel about it. “It erodes the credibility of everything around it,” he says.
He’s right to focus on the issue of credibility, which is a problem for mainstream media. Not only has the rise of blogging, citizen journalism and instant news-breaking via Twitter pulled the rug from under traditional media, it’s also given rise to a new kind of scepticism and resentment about what journalists do: a tendency to believe that they are complacent, arrogant, self-serving and not very honest.
New media has the advantages of authenticity, informality and a sense of being on a level with the reader. Old media is based on projecting the idea that I Am Better Than You And You Should Listen To Me. New media is also free from some of the old stylistic conventions, and has more choice about what it covers – bloggers write as and when they want to, which often means a more honest treatment of the material.
I don’t think it’s the people who are the problem here – many of the best bloggers and tweeters also write for mainstream publications – I think it’s the way the business of mainstream media works.
A lot of the time it feels like the papers are just playing a role – both in terms of presenting themselves as Serious Journalists, and in terms of how they choose to cover events. If you pick up The Sun or The Guardian or The Mail, you know roughly what characters you’re going to meet, the kind of things they’re going to be getting up to and how they’re going to be portrayed. That’s part of the point of these papers: they give you a particular view of the world, sometimes in spite of the evidence. Bloggers can be ignorant and intransigent too, but I think they tend to voice views that they honestly hold.
The papers, on the other hand, have blatant partisan biases and sometimes vested interests, which is particularly worrying when large chunks of our media are owned by the same man. The phone-hacking scandal was a great example of the press’s reluctance to report on itself (even outside the Murdoch empire) for fear of being found to be as bad as the rest.
It all adds up to a view that the press is just a bit lame, and deserves its decline.
Churnalising press releases feeds this. Some of the examples on the site show that PR professionals are very practised at writing in the style of the newspapers they target – a very valuable skill for their clients (see how comprehensively OnePoll got their client’s name and message across in the MailOnline). The journos welcome having work taken off their hands, but it cheapens what they do to be claiming as their own something which belongs in a company’s marketing materials. It serves to deepen the divide between those who write because they have something to say and those who fill pages because it’s their job.
The funny thing is, there’s nothing wrong with using a press release as a source of a story, as long as it’s done properly. I’m sure I’m guilty of some churnalism, but I wouldn’t apologise for using press releases as sources per se.
The difference in cases like these is that any blogger who felt moved to write about the story would simply have said: “I got a press release [hyperlinked] today which said…” No pretence, no attempt to give the impression that this information was found by pounding the streets or meeting a man wearing a trenchcoat in a multi-storey car park – just taking a written statement from an organisation pursuing its own interests for what it is.