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.
Frustrated by the current lack of transparency in the press, we (the Media Standards Trust) built churnalism.com. It is an independent, non-commercial site that lets people paste in press releases and compare them with all the articles published in the national press, the BBC, and Sky News online. It has been funded out of the grants we receive from charitable foundations, in order to raise awareness about churnalism—including, in the U.K., the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Gatsby Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. In the US, the Trust has also previously been supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation (we were a News Challenge award winner in 2008).
Paste in a press release, hit ‘compare’, and the site will compare the release with over three million articles from the national press, BBC, and Sky. It will then tell you what percentage of the press release has been cut and pasted and used in which news articles.
How churnalism.com works
From a technical perspective, figuring out whether something is churnalism is not entirely straightforward. We tried a bunch of different methodologies before using the one we ended up with. At first we looked for distinctive words that were in both the press release and news articles (which can be very helpful in identifying pieces about a similar subject). But we found this was highly erratic in pinpointing churn.
Eventually we created our own methodology, based on compression, re-indexing, and matching. Essentially, the site compresses all articles published on national newspaper websites, on BBC News, and Sky News online, into a series of numbers based on fifteen character strings (using a “hash function”) and then stores them in a fast access database.
When someone pastes in some text and clicks “compare,” the churn engine compresses the text entered and then searches for similar compressions (or “common hashes”). If the engine finds any articles where the similarity is greater than 20 percent, then it suggests the article may be churn. Churnalism.com is powered off the back of the database of over three million compressed articles in journalisted.com.