'Churnalism': demonising PR is too simple

Tuesday 19 July 2011, 15:59

Fiona Fox Fiona Fox is chief executive of the Science Media Centre

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What has 'churnalism' got to do with the phone hacking scandal? Plenty, according to Chris Atkins in his support for the motion "This house believes news articles based on press releases should be marked 'advertorial'" at a recent debate at the Royal Statistical Society.

Atkins opened by claiming that "churning" out news stories copied and pasted from press releases is at the mild end of the scale of dishonest things journalists do which ends with phone hacking.

And he knows a thing or two about this. When the Media Standards Trust launched its new website Churnalism.com, Atkins sent out a number of hoax press releases which were slavishly reproduced by a variety of national news outlets - including the posh papers.

My favourite, about a "chastity garter" which contained a text message-sending microchip to alert a woman's partner if she is being unfaithful, became the most read story on the Daily Mail's website.

The linking of phone hacking and churnalism found favour with the main organiser of the debate, Martin Moore, Director of the MST, who raced to it from the House of Lords' launch of the campaign for a public inquiry into phone hacking.

Atkins, Director of the films Starsuckers and Taking Liberties, was supported by James Randerson, News Editor for Science and Environment at the Guardian.

Against them were Trevor Morris, lecturer in PR at the University of Westminster, and David Higgerson, Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror. I was chairing (after declining an invitation to speak because, uncharacteristically, I can't make up my mind).

Atkins argued that passing press releases off as news is fundamentally dishonest. He insisted he was not out to demonise PR, but went on to claim that, while the role of journalists is to tell the truth, the role of PR people is serve their paymasters, and, yes, "they lie".

The essence of Atkins' argument was compelling: that the public have a right to know where journalists source their news, and that putting a bold sign on every article taken primarily from a press release could make readers do interesting things - like vote with their feet by seeking out journalists and newspapers that do more original journalism.

Just as the audience began to believe we could enter a kind of journalistic nirvana, in came Higgerson to explain that the press release is now the chosen form of communication with the media of almost every institution in society - many of whom we want and need to hear from. Press releases get a bad press, he argued, pointing out that many are written by former journalists who write well and know what the media needs. Admitting to not being a fan of Churnalism.com's 'churn engine', which allows users to trace how many stories are copied from press releases, Higgerson claimed it is a blunt tool: for instance, it fails to show whether journalists have checked the facts in the press release, or which press releases have been rejected.

He concluded with an argument that did rather queer the pitch of the proposers: that the press release is only one of the many ways the PR industry exerts its influence. While his example of one disgruntled company PR threatening to turn up at his desk with a mallet is thankfully rare, it did drive the point home. Other dark arts include the angry call to the editor from would-be Alastair Campbells and the threat of withdrawal of advertising. Neither of those, of course, would be any more visible in a brave new world where press release stories were labelled.

This last point was echoed by Trevor Morris, the former PR guru, who pointed out that lots of PR comes from private briefings, tip-offs and leaks, prompting Morris to suggest that, alongside labels like 'advertorial', we would have to label other copy 'leakatorial', and so on.

Morris delivered a list of rather brutal home truths: if we have less PR we will have less media, and less media means less advertising, which is bad for journalism. Also, PR allows small players without big advertising budgets to get media space. And PR keeps the cost of journalism down. Finally, PR people have a vested interest in supporting journalism, because without the media they would lose their jobs.

Morris also argued that the power of PR is grossly overstated by both its supporters and its critics - which explains why so many powerful people who spend buckets on the best PR advice still crash and burn (the Murdoch empire comes to mind). He said that 90% of press releases are never even used - which suggests there is a lot more journalistic judgment going on in newsrooms than we are giving credit for.

It was left to James Randerson to subvert the motion by sheepishly admitting he couldn't give it the full-throated defence expected at this kind of debate. He started by bringing up the other media scandal of recent weeks: the Johann Hari plagiarism saga. James sees some of the same paternalism displayed by Hari, in his defence of lifting quotes from other sources, in the general reluctance to be more open about where journalists have sourced their stories.

For Randerson, the idea that the journalist knows best and the reader doesn't need to worry about the mysterious craft of reporting is no longer justifiable in a time of ever increasing demand for transparency. Instead of labeling articles 'advertorial', Randerson argued for the simplest of solutions: linking to sources. For Randerson, the fact that we now have the technical ability to do so with such ease makes this move towards more transparency both desirable and inevitable.

Randerson shares Atkins' belief that more transparency could drive up standards. After all, few reporters come into journalism to copy stories from press releases. Being forced to reveal this would be an eye-opener for the public and may result in more self-policing policy in newsrooms.

The final vote was 23 for the motion - demanding the Advertorial label - and 39 against. The speakers concluded with a kind of consensus that more transparency about sources would be a good thing but the problem of churnalism is unlikely to be fixed by newspapers full of 'advertorial' signs.

Personally, I think the critics of PR make the mistake of using it as a catch-all term. Product placement PR or the frothy opinion polls that trace back to some big corporate with something to sell are worthy but easy targets. It's not so simple in the science world, where I work: many press releases exist to document the findings of long, complex research studies on public health and the environment. Putting 'advertorial' over a report of a press-released Nature paper showing that asbestos-like effects have been found in the lungs of mice exposed to nanoparticles seems crazy to me.

Nor do I buy the idea that a newspaper should be spared the label just because a journalist calls the researcher directly and gets an almost identical comment to the press release - probably rehearsed by the scientist and press officer in preparation for publication. For me, the test of reporting in science should be whether the public and policy makers get access to good, factually accurate, balanced and truthful information. If that is done by journalists and press officers working together and includes a press release, then fine. The failures in this area are as much down to shoddy sensationalist journalism as they are an over-reliance on press releases.

PR, like journalism, is a mixed bag. But if I was asked to identify the people who most symbolise the pursuit of accurate, critical and balanced reporting, my list would include as many press officers as journalists.

Atkins argued that if lifting the lid on the way journalists get their stories leads to a decline in public trust in the media that is a thoroughly good thing if it forces journalists to change for the better.

At other times, Atkins' faith in radical and dramatic change in journalism might have sounded naïve and idealistic. But in the light of current headlines it seems less so.

Fiona Fox is Director of the Science Media Centre, an independent press office working on the front line between national news media and science on controversial issues.

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