JBP Churnalism The Guardian

The beauty and the beast: a look at Churnalism in media


By The Drum Team, Editorial

March 11, 2011 | 5 min read

The Media Standards Trust has launched a new project to “help the public distinguish between journalism and churnalism” - churnalism being a press release cut and pasted into a publication without anything added or corroborated. Here, former journalist and JBP PR account director Sarah Rice looks at the issue from both sides.

Fourteen years ago when I started as a “cub” reporter on a grannies weekly newspaper – detailing the colour of Daniel O’Donnell’s eyes (and how tight his jeans were) – I had no idea that my ambitions of writing for newspapers would end up with me working in PR.

After 10 years in regional newspapers and freelancing for national titles, however, this is exactly what I do, but, whilst I chose to leave journalism behind, many have had different experiences.

The scale of newspaper and broadcast operations and the number of reporters working in the UK is being systematically reduced. This is particularly true in the regions, where journalists continue to be the main fall-out of cost-cutting exercises aimed at making outlets more profitable.

It’s a situation that seems to have arisen from the fact our expectations of the Fourth Estate’s remit to investigate and probe the powers-that-be on our behalf have also dwindled and, as a result, there is a significant change in what we are told and how we are told it.

So, should we really be surprised – and are we even bothered – that press releases are used almost verbatim in newspapers and read aloud on air by TV and radio presenters?

The Media Standards Trust is certainly doing its bit in trying to bring these issues to life with a new website www.churnalism.com where people can insert passages from press releases and find out where they have appeared without challenge.

Culprits of the “cut and paste”, according to the Guardian, are mainly tabloids. The paper could not resist having a dig at long-standing adversary the Daily Mail as a paper that used “89%” of a press release in one story.

The whole issue brings to mind a passage in a brilliant book by David Randall called The Universal Journalist in which he says that every newspaper should have a disclaimer attached: “This paper, and the hundreds of thousands of words it contains, has been produced in about 15 hours by a group of fallible human beings … Its content has been determined by a series of subjective judgements made by reporters and executives, tempered by what they know to be the editor's, owner's and readers' prejudices.The whole quote can be found on the book’s dedicated site.

The irony is that, from a public relations point of view, there are serious problems with a depleted and less investigative press because the impact of getting a journalist’s attention and having them deem your story worthy of interest reduces with it.

However, people should be under no illusions that gaining media attention is still an incredibly hard-fought process that is at once both a comparatively rare skill and requires true understanding of what is appropriate for both the brand you represent and the journalist or publication you are talking to.

Unless there is an incredibly strong general interest consumer or business story at JBP we very rarely undertake mass media “sell-ins” and prefer to build relationships with key journalists and grow understanding of our clients and what they can offer.

There is also the matter of the changing media landscape and what we provide in PR has had to change with it – media relations is no longer regarded as the only way to build reputation as the benefits and opportunities in social networking and public affairs continues to expand.

Personally, I think the people behind Churnalism.com are at once geniuses trying to save the reputation of an important institution – and have a great future in PR ahead of them.

JBP Churnalism The Guardian

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