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.”

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.

Serious churn

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.

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.

Churnalism.com is not going to “solve” the churnalism problem, nor is it supposed to. News outlets will continue to copy and paste press releases. Indeed listening to people in public relations, press releases are already “old school.” Much better to feed PR in via the news agencies than go straight to the news desks, and easier to strike long term commercial relationships with news outlets that enable constant cross promotion.

But churnalism.com will provide people with a tool to help distinguish between journalism and churnalism. And maybe it will make journalists think twice before putting their byline at the top of the next press release, and link to it instead. Who knows? It may even encourage more original journalism—which would be a very good thing.

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Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust.