Those of you with long memories or a major interest in the media aspects of the Musings might well remember this post in which I documented the recycling and re-recycling of the media coverage of a paper of mine. This process of the media lifting text (and especially press releases, but also each others’ stories) and simply passing them off as an actual article now commonly goes by the name ‘churnalism’. This is of course quite insidious, with savvy companies being able to plant their PR wholesale into mainstream outlets as ‘news’ and a further reduction in quality control and assessment on behalf of the hacks.

To track this, a group of people have got together to make a site to track churnalism and spot its spread. As a bit of (ironically) a PR stunt to launch this, they put out a few false stories of their own and watched as they spread through the media. The papers completely recycling huge chunks of what was obviously pre-written text, that was also based on a non-existent story in the first place. I’ll certainly be interested to see how well the science side of this deals with my next press release.

This really is important. For all the ever expanding use of blogs, twitter and online journals, most people get their science from the traditional media (or variations of it, like the websites of major journals / Reuters / BBC etc.). If the media aren’t actually writing stories and checking their sources then anything can get out there, regardless of accuracy. And this is just the recycling – sadly, but not surprisingly, the media continues to present supposedly scientific stories that have little or nothing in common with the actual findings of the research on which they are supposedly based. There are those calling for links between stories posted online and the original scientific articles which would help, but hardly stop the rot.

It’s easy to be angry on the internet and perhaps I am too much of an idealist. But really, surely the job of a reporter is to report the truth, as far as possible, and to explain the complex. Making up stories, passing off PR copy uncritically as your writing, and distorting and ignoring reality for your work is not journalism. It is, to my mind, bordering on fraud. It certainly wouldn’t fit even the loosest definition of reporting or journalism. When for science as a whole, this is probably our primary source of communication with the wider world (and if you follow the 2nd link, you’ll see even UK politicians are using these stories for their ‘facts’), that’s somewhere between disturbing, tragic, annoying and depression, with only a thin slick of black humour.

9 Responses to “Churnalism”

  1. 1 Marc Vincent 21/03/2011 at 3:11 pm

    Dave – be thankful you’re not studying this stuff. It gets thoroughly depressing. Have you read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News? It’s one of the seminal books of recent years on what’s wrong with journalism; it also goes further to demonstrate just how correct Chomsky & Herman were when they devised their ‘propaganda model’ of the news media (although, sadly, Davies doesn’t mention this himself).

    There’s a lecture here tonight on ‘churnalism’, but unfortunately I’m swamped with work ahead of a presentation tomorrow and can’t attend. It will be available online though, so I’ll post a link here when it’s available.

    • 2 David Hone 21/03/2011 at 7:06 pm

      I am thankful I don’t study it. Every time I return to anyhting like this stuff I get more annoyed and depressed. Good luck!

  2. 3 Marc Vincent 21/03/2011 at 7:35 pm

    Hello – just been to the lecture in spite of my better judgement. It was by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust, the organisation that started up Unfortunately it wasn’t recorded, as it clashed with the SU election results (as if anyone cares about that…). Apologies.

  3. 4 broadsideblog 22/03/2011 at 10:37 am

    Speaking as a journalist (ducking!), I agree.

    Blame the publishers who can’t be bothered to hire or staff well. An experienced and ethical journo (yes, we exist) tends to have a few decades on them which makes us, literally twice as costly as a wide-eyed 22-year-old they can run ragged and who won’t ask pesky questions like “Why exactly are we running press releases unquestioned?”

    Newsrooms are filled now with people terrified of losing their jobs, as 24,000 of us did in 2008. I never found another one, much as I’d like to. So whatever crap is happening inside a news organization, and we’re quite aware of it, is unlikely now (more than ever) to go unchallenged.

    None of which excuses the behavior.

    • 5 David Hone 22/03/2011 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I do know what happens and (while you won’t see it as a casual visitor) I do praise the good stuff too, but I’m well aware of how little there is of that these days. It’s notable that some of the most vehement critics I see of modern journalism are current or ex reporters themselves which tells you quite a lot.

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