THERE’S a new service over in the UK set up by the Media Standards Trust which allows the public to check for cases of “Churnalism”.
Churnalism, says the trust, is “a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added”.
Using the free Churnalism website, you can paste text from a press release into a box. The service then goes off and finds any news articles that resemble the text of the press release – articles suspected of being “churn”.
The site lets you see the press release placed side-by-side against the original and gives a percentage of how much of the release was cut-and-pasted and how many characters overlap.
In the last few days, they’ve added a service where you can do this exercise in reverse and search news outlets against press releases from some companies and government agencies.
For example, the site suspects that in the last three years 495 articles in The Guardian online may be churn. The Daily Mail online scores more than 700.
Now obviously, there are lots of occasions when there’s nothing at all wrong with a press release being churned. The trust points out that
Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden.
Unfortunately,the site is only available in the UK but you can rest assured there’s plenty of churnalism that goes on in Australia too. Some of it is harmless, but some of it is clearly not.
Which brings me to a recent article which appeared online in the Gladstone Observer and an almost identical story which appeared online in the Toowoomba Chronicle – both news sites owned by APN News & Media.
The story reported how the Queensland Gas Company had stopped work on clearing land for a coal seam gas pipeline because “environmental plans for soil and species management have not been approved”, the report said. A serious issue no doubt and well worth the time of an APN journalist in reporting it. After all, QGC has reported it is spending $15 billion on the project which the delay was part of.
There were quotes from “QGC senior vice president Jim Knudsen” who explained the company didn’t believe their work so far had caused any “adverse impact on protected plants and animals”.
I asked QGC if they had issued a press release into the incident. They said they had and they sent me a copy. It’s now here online. Well, you’ve guessed the rest.
The story on the Towoomba site was almost identical to the press release, with only 5 words of the original 251-word press release changed. They didn’t even bother to write their own headline. “QGC stops work on pipeline”.
The Gladstone Observer story was identical, except for the addition of a 13 word intro popped on the top of the text. The rest of the story was a complete and unchanged cut-and-paste from the QGC release.
Why am I worried about this? Because a news outlet should not be just a distribution service for a major corporation, especially one which is drilling 6000 wells and laying more than 700 kilometres of pipeline in the areas being served by the news outlet.
I know regional newspapers have resources issues but surely its online readers should have been made aware that the story printed on its website was just a cut-and-pasted press release?
Good on QGC for admitting the breach, but you can only hope that the print versions of the Gladstone Observer and the Toowoomba Chronicle do better.
You can make the comparison between the two stories for yourself if you keep reading. I recently wrote a feature on some of the concerns related to the Coal Seam Gas industry on ABC Environment.