Yet the releases make headlines, and not just in the national press. In July 2010, The Scotsman and The Independent reported that “July is the grumpiest month,” attributing it to a Travelodge survey. The same story was published in the Hartlepool Mail, the Yorkshire Post, the Dundalk Democrat, the Kilkenny People, the Tipperary Star, and other local papers. Only a few years ago, on June 2006, Travelodge had sent out a press release reporting that June was the grumpiest month.
Travelodge is certainly not the only company to try to use the media to promote itself. All the major (and many minor) retailers use press releases and PR to promote their products and services. This is simply the flotsam and jetsam of the daily information cycle. But although those in professional communications and the press may be aware of this unspoken flow, it remains concealed from the wider public.
In some cases, lazy journalism is to blame. The press releases provide text, quotes, images, and sometimes even video footage. The story quite literally writes itself. Many news outlets ignore such puff, but many do not. As the Cardiff figures show, many get into the press without any sign that the journalist has even picked up the phone.
Not all churnalism comes from commercial sources. Much of it has political sources: public authorities trying to spin bad news, medical firms trying to obscure poor results, and political lobbying groups. For instance, Migration Watch UK lobbies against immigration to the U.K. At the beginning of January it sent out a press release reporting a “Massive Increase in Family Visitors Appeals” by migrants. The release stressed how expensive these appeals were to U.K. tax payers and how the problem urgently needed to be addressed. Articles based on the press release were published in three national newspapers. In his article for the Daily Express the following day, Macer Hall used 52 percent of the release (based on our analysis). Richard Edwards in the Telegraph used only slightly less, and James Slack in the Daily Mail used over a third.
Curious to see what was required to feed churnalism into the press, we helped set up an experiment. Chris Atkins, a film director with a track record of successful hoaxes (having directed Starsuckers and Taking Liberties), offered to explore how easy it was to get fake ‘news’ stories published. We agreed that the stories had to be entirely invented, harmless, and relatively easy to disprove. If any were successful, we would quickly make clear that the stories were made up.
It did not take Chris long before he had some success. He invented a product, the “chastity garter,” to be worn by women while their partners were away. Should the woman’s pulse rise above 120 BPM, and the moisture on her skin pass a particular level, the press release read, a text message would automatically be sent to her partner.
It would not take Woodward and Bernstein to see the flaws in this story. The press release even came with a wonderfully amateur photo of a garter with a cheap digital watch attached. Yet it proved irresistible to some in the press. The Daily Mail website (with readership of over 40 million unique users a month) published the story on its front page. For a while it was the most read story on the site. The Daily Star published a third of a page in the print paper and online. The story then went global, being published in the Times of India, CNET news, Express.de (Germany), Mako.il (Israel), Florida Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.
Of course, not all churnalism is bad. There are plenty of press releases that are in the public interest. It would be odd if news outlets did not publish news about medical breakthroughs, about major government announcements, about exciting new consumer products.
Moreover, huge numbers of press releases never make it into print. We never saw a news story about “The Valentines Day cucumber” shaped like a heart, for example (announced by Sainsbury’s in a press release in February).
But many do make it into print, and very few news outlets make the connection between the press release and the news article explicit to their readers. In the past, this lack of transparency was partly excusable given space constraints and given that newspapers never aspired to academic standards of sourcing. But now, given that many press releases are published online and are so easy to link to, any news outlet that wants to could easily link to a press release from the article.
By being more transparent about the sources of news, readers would be better able to judge where it comes from, whether it has an agenda, and whether it is just puff.