The Media Standards Trust (U.K.) has just launched a website—churnalism.com—that lets people compare press releases with published news articles in order to help identify ‘churnalism’. Martin Moore, director of the MST, explains why they built it and how it works.
“Facebook ‘friends’ cause stress” (BBC, 2-16-11)
“New rations for Afghanistan troops” (Daily Express, 2-14-11)
“Men think putting out the bin is romantic says new survey” (Daily Mirror, 2-11-11)
“Home cooks help save traditional breakfast marmalade” (Daily Telegraph, 1-21-11)
“Golden age of happiness: Turning 50 is key to ‘content and comfortable’ life” (Daily Mail, 1-19-11)
“Immigrants’ family appeals costing taxpayers £1million a week” (Daily Telegraph, 1-2-10).
All these articles have something in common. They are all ‘churnalism’, the word made popular by Nick Davies in his seminal book Flat Earth News. A piece of ‘churnalism’ is a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.
Churnalism has been around a long while. Back in the 1920s Edward Bernays was writing about “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” as an “important element in democratic society.” In the 1950s Vance Packard warned us about “the large scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes,” typically “beneath our level of awareness.”
But its power and extent have grown. In the U.S. and U.K. there are now more PR people than journalists. The PR industries in these two countries are numbers one and two in the world in terms of size. In the U.K., PR accounts for over £6.5 billion in revenues. PR is, in the words of Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, “faster growing, better paid and better resourced” than journalism. “Like it or loathe it, PR has become a key ingredient in many of our lives.”
There are now vast quantities of PR material produced every day, a good chunk of which makes it into the independent media. Research by Cardiff University, which Nick Davies used to inform his book, found that 54 percent of news articles in the U.K. press can be at least partially sourced to PR. And this is only the national press. Many local papers rely even more heavily on press releases.
This is a problem because, as Davies 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.” This promotion or suppression is more effective for public relations if it is disguised from public view. Nor do news outlets want to advertise their reliance on PR. Therefore the connection between the two normally remains hidden.
Promotion, advertising and distortion disguised as news
In many cases churnalism is about promotion of a service or product. The hotel chain Travelodge, for example, has an interest in promoting sleep. Sleep is what people generally do at Travelodge. The more Travelodge can get people to associate the chain with sleep, the more likely it is they will think of it when choosing a place to stay when they are travelling. To help people make this association, Travelodge often sends out press releases on the subject of sleep.
Here is a selection of Travelodge press releases: “Coldplay has the snooze factor - as it claims No.1 position in the UK Kip Charts” (10-22-10); “Over a third of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear” (8-16-10), “UK drained by 29 billion sleep debt” (5-27-10); “23 million Britons give big ‘Hola!’ to British siesta!” (6-6-07).
And here are some of the articles in the press that bear a distinct resemblance to these press releases: “Coldplay sends Britains to sleep” (Sunday Telegraph, 10-25-10); “Third of adults ‘still take teddy to bed’” (Daily Telegraph, 8-16-10); “Britons have lost almost an hour’s sleep a night during the recession, claims study” (Daily Telegraph, 5-27-10); “Wake up call on sleeping” (Daily Mirror, 6-3-10); “Britain Says ‘Si’ To Siesta Time At Work” (Daily Express, 6-7-07). Though these are essentially another form of promotion for Travelodge, like paid commercials or advertisements, the newspapers publish the press releases as news stories. The stories are not untrue, nor do they necessarily do people any harm. But they are manufactured, and are not what most of us would think of as “news.”