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Churnalism: making PR message relevant

By George Hulbert

In an era of shrinking news desks and increasing web-based media intensity, a new online tool has been launched in the US – Churnalism – that asks the question:

"Ever wonder if the news story you're reading is a product of real journalism or just a spin-off of another story posted elsewhere?"

This tool, a development of Churnalism.com, which launched in the UK two years ago, allows users to track whether content in the media stories they read has been sourced from published news releases and other websites such as Wikipedia.

It's a great tool, providing a fascinating and absolutely transparent insight as to where the various pieces of a news story have come from.

However, it is interesting to me that the tool positions itself around trust, asking users to "discover the journalism you can trust and what you should question". Essentially it asks whether the media are just regurgitating PR 'spin'.

I wonder if the question posed on the website isn't itself a spin. I have always thought that journalists who know their stuff gather story information from a range of sources, filter it against their own bullshit detectors and distil it based on their accumulated knowledge - and then write within an established editorial framework for their outlet. And to gain the information they need for their article, they gather background from a variety of sources, go to the participants in the story for their view, and then select what's useful for use within their word count limits.

Depending on your perspective, news media consistently spin things. For example, you'd only very rarely - if ever - see the left-leaning Huffington Post review an event in the same light as the more conservative Spectator. And you only have to look at the way that The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian covered the death of Margaret Thatcher to see 'angle' at work.

No doubt Churnalism's launch in the US will drive a series of usual predictable howls: that there's too much PR in the news, that journalists are accused of being lazy, that there's too much spin around. But does it really mean that? I don't think so.

I'd suggest that information presented to media through a PR channel is as valuable - and valid - as content from other sources. A quote from a CEO provided through a press release is still as valid a quote as if he gave it direct to the journalist in answer to a direct question… surely?

If articles are well-researched, filtered, distilled and checked, how is this level of transparency different from knowing for example that a car company sources its doors from a company in France and its engines from another one in Japan? If the car works and gets you from A to B for ten years without breaking down, surely it's robust regardless of its components' source.

At a time when journalists are under massive time pressure - never more so - due to the tyranny of the internet's immediacy, this tool also creates an opportunity for organisations looking to see how effective their message is.

So, I'd suggest that another way of looking at Churnalism is that it actually enables recognition of the useful role that competent PR plays in putting relevant content into the hands of media. Churnalism now allows PR companies to work better with - and be more measurable to - their clients, who can now see clearer than ever where their points of view are gaining media traction… or not.