Churnalism website highlights an ‘old news story’

The irony of The Guardian’s piece yesterday about a new website which exposes the extent to which news items are lifted from press releases is that (fascinating though it is) it is hardly ‘newsworthy’ that this happens.

The Media Standards Trust’s Churnalism website allows readers to paste press releases into a ‘churn engine’ and receive a rating which shows the percentage of any given article that has been reproduced from publicity material. It’s a very clever way of highlighting the issues surrounding the interface between journalism and PR, which is often portrayed as undermining the very fabric of democratic discourse in this country.

Much of this debate though does seems to assume that most PR is misleading and bad and that journalists are not doing their job if they even talk to public relations people. Some examples of churnalism on the website – where half-baked stories have generated media coverage – certainly point to sloppy practice.

But it is naive to think that the media could do its job effectively, with the limited resources it has, without having access to credible, quick and reliable information and content. This is what PR can provide, and does in a lot of cases.

It is also overlooked that PR is about more than churning out press releases, and can be brilliantly defined in the content and commentary assembled by the Media Standards Trust to launch its website. Giving The Guardian (which has the highest proportion of readers working in the media of any newspaper) exclusive access to the website, highlighting examples of bad practice by the tabloids (a hot topic if ever there was one) and providing video content to support the launch is classic PR in itself. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think anyone could say that it is, apart from perhaps those who have been implicated by it.

The website sparked interesting debates on Twitter this morning also, with some PR contacts wondering whether the website could be used as a measurement tool for the industry. Out of interest, I have just pasted a couple of paragraphs from recent HCA releases into the ‘churn engine’ and got nothing back. I am really not sure what to make of that!

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