Churnalism and the complicated marriage between journalism and PR

Nathan Hegedus  2011-03-16

I used to be on Oprah. Well, it was a media training where the training leader pretended to be Oprah and “interview” me about how a “real” journalist thought and worked.

And my core message?

Press releases do not work. As a newspaper reporter, I hated press releases. I threw away press releases. I did not trust press releases.

Move away from the press release, I advised. Yes, it might get you a brief in a publication if they need to fill a hole or if a reporter is especially lazy or overworked or desperate.

Except, ummm, it seems that I was just a little bit … wrong.

A colleague just sent me a bunch of links on “churnalism,” or the art of cutting and pasting directly from a press release into a news story.

The terms comes from the 2008 book Flat Earth News by British journalist Nick Davies. And it picked up serious stream recently when the Media Standards Trust foundation in the UK recently launched churnalism.com. At this website, you can paste in a press release and see if there any stories in the mainstream British print press based on it and see what percentage of the release was directly cut and pasted into the story.

Digression — This is a brilliant idea, but the site itself is limited to the UK and to mainstream media, not the trade or tech press. I spent a frustrating half an hour yesterday plugging in English-language press releases from Sweden or from tech companies in the US with no hits.

In fact, churnalism.com highlights an important global communications issue but does come from a very UK-focused place. My gut tells me that larger mainstream US newspapers are not as likely to practice churnalism, but that trade or tech blogs in the US are more likely to cut and paste a press release, which is probably a big enough market for churnalism practitioners to thrive in. Not better than the UK, just different.

Back to the story — To publicize the website, the Media Standards Trust had independent filmmaker Chris Atkins pull a series of hoaxes on unsuspecting news desks across the UK. Atkins got fake stories on a male beauty product called the penazzle, “chastity” garters, and the British prime minister’s cat in a whole series of newspapers and radio outlets.

Then, in cooperation with Atkins, The Guardian in the UK exposed the hocus pocus of churnalism.

Embarrassing? Oh, yes.

In a PRWeek story, many PR execs dismissed the new site.

‘I’m not sure why anyone would want to go to the time and effort of producing a website to prove something that no-one really cares about,’ said Mark Stringer, founder of Pretty Green. ‘The fact is that good PROs know what journalists want and, in the main, write good press releases to help provide content for them.

Now, I still consider myself a journalist but I also mostly work in communications for corporate clients these days. So I see both sides of this. And I do believe there is a happy medium between the PR industry and journalists.

From a PR point of view, there is becoming a trusted source for trusted journalists who are not so lazy as to practice churnalism. There is taking the bad with the good and building credibility through honesty and openness. And this gets you more than the flash churnalism on the front page of a website for a day or two or the churnalism of your product filling up the briefs column that almost nobody might read.

Bypassing the quick and easy for building long-term relationships will almost always get you the big stories and the better brand building.

In a comment on the PRWeek story, Keith Trivitt, the associate director of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America, summed it up nicely:

The fact is that PR pros’ value largely derives from their credibility with the media, their clients and the public that consumes the news … [But] journalists, too, have a significant role to play in due diligence to ensure the articles they write include considerable third-party validation from sources other than those given to them by PR pros.

Perhaps, more than anything else, Churnalism.com will cause both PR pros and journalists to look at our collective work and see whether we are truly helping to expand society’s collective knowledge.

If not, what can and should we be doing to fix that?

Nathan Hegedus

Nathan Hegedus is a strategic editor for JG Communication focused on thought leadership projects. Based in the Bay Area after years in Stockholm, he is looking to find synergies in content strategy between Scandinavia and Silicon Valley.

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