Are you reading a news story — or a barely-rewritten press release?

child.newspaperHave you ever read a purported news story that sounded suspiciously like a press release?

Now, the The U.K.’s Media Standards Trust has updated its tool for determining how close that story is to a news release.

The tool is called “Churnalism” and is available at churnalism.com. It’s a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox. Called a “churn engine,” it runs in the background to distinguish journalism from “churnalism” (about which, more in a minute). It operates while you’re reading a news story or you can go to the Churnalism site and enter a URL or some text to determine how closely the story matches a news release — if at all — as well as where the “churn” comes from and it will display  the churned text.

I’ve tried it and it works.

The database of news releases includes some well-known and well-used sources of information for medical journalists, including

  • eurekalert.com
  • uk.prweb.com
  • prnewswire.co.uk
  • bbc.

While the database has a decided U.K. bent, the Media Standards Trust says it intends to increase its list of sources — and invites contributions of other sources.

As to what effect  churnalism.com will have on journalism, the trust says, “Our hope is that, eventually, this website should become redundant, as news articles link to sources as a matter of course and provide comparisons of articles with press releases themselves. In the meantime churnalism.com ought to provide a useful and constructive (and perhaps slightly mischievous) public service.”

The trust also defines “churnalism” as new that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added. It quotes Nick Davies, who in his  book Flat Earth News wrote that churnalism is produced by “journalists who are no longer gathering news but are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.”

The word “churnalism” has been attributed to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir.

I disagree with the trust’s contention that “of course not all churnalism is bad [because] some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on).”

Some news releases are very well-written and correct with little spin, and if a journalist is writing just a short piece, it’s tempting to just cut and paste the release. But any writer will want to put his or her own stamp on even a brief. And there is nothing particularly noble or sacrosanct about medical news releases, which should be given the same scrutiny as any other release.~TM

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