Churnalism debate: Demonising the press release won’t make for a better Press

On Wednesday, I was on a panel for a debate held by the Media Standards Trust and the BBC College of Journalism which was all about churnalism. It was the first time I’d taken part in a debate-type event (on the panel at least) and I enjoyed it.

I blogged a while back about how the ‘churnalism search engine’ irritates me because it doesn’t actually tackle the biggest problem with churnalism – the taking of ‘facts’ on a press release at face value. Of course, a search engine by its nature can’t tell you whether an article has had its facts checked, but having a service which enables people to see how much of a press released makes it into print unaltered doesn’t do much to help the quality of journalism in my opinion.

The motion for the evening was: “This house believes news articles based on press releases should be marked ‘advertorial’.” I was against the motion, along with Trevor Morris (former CEO of Chime Communications PR Group; author of ‘PR – A Persuasive Industry?’), who was a much more knowledge and convincing speaker than me about the relationship between PR and newsrooms.

For the motion were Chris Atkins (Director of StarSuckers, & Taking Liberties), & James Randerson (Guardian Science/Environment Editor).

Strangely, I think we all ended up in agreement: That sticking advertorials on the top of stories wouldn’t be much of a solution, but that greater transparency of sources in general was a good thing.

I’ve made a bunch of notes from the evening which I’ll try and do something with next week, but for now, here’s what I had to say in my alotted time:

What exactly would we achieve by marking up all content based on press releases as ‘advertorials.’

The answer is not very much. We might confuse a lot of people, but we certainly wouldn’t have come up with a way to tackle churnalism or increase transparency in journalism.

I’ll deal with the practical problem this presents first. Across regional newspapers, the word advertorial is already commonly used, or variants of it. Advertorials are clearly-labelled articles, sectioned off from regular news content, which are paid for by companies. They pay a premium to have articles written by journalists, have the final sign-off on them and the design of them.

And while someone, somewhere will have paid for a press release to be written, that’s where the similarities between press releases and advertorials end. In paying for a press release, you aren’t paying for a guaranteed appearance in a newspaper, the location of that appearance or the context it will be used in.

I think it’s important we tackle the myth of the press release damaging journalism. If journalists don’t do their jobs properly then yes, this can happen, but expecting every news article featuring press release content to be flagged up as such simply isn’t practical or desirable.

15 years ago, when I started out as a trainee journalist, a daily job was to go to Leyland police station and speak to the local inspector who would run through every crime. These days, that access had been replaced by the police choosing which crimes to put on audio voice banks or issue as press releases. It’s the same information, if less of it, and the same editorial judgement will be made: Is it worth using.

When I first began covering local government, the council press office would simply ring me if they had a community event they wanted to see appearing in print as a news in brief. Now, that event would be dispatched to the paper via a press release. Again, it’s the same information and the same editorial judgement call will be made again.

In the last decade, there has been a huge tightening up in the way organisations speak to the press. Whereas press releases were once confined to national brands seeking exposure, they are now they preferred method of communication. Telling the reader that the report of the local WI’s monthly meeting has come via press release doesn’t improve transparency for the reader – if anything, it makes things worse.

The ability to point out that a company or organisation is only prepared to communicate via statement or press release when a journalist is trying to hold them to account is a powerful tool for journalists.

Revealing the presence of a press release within every story would dilute the ability to flag up when a company is being evasive.

If nothing else, there are many other ways the PR industry try and seek to influence news coverage. Ringing the editor to try and get a story pulled, threatening to pull advertising if a story goes in, promising hell and brimstone if a reporter writes a story. Would all that stop if we stuck advertorial at the top of stories which contain press releases? No.

Press releases, ironically, get a bad press. Not all press releases are bad. Our job as journalists is determine whether they are right and how best to use them.

There is no reason why we couldn’t include press releases via Scribd alongside stories where we thought it was suitable – if it clearly adds to what the reader is getting.

We know that companies buy regional papers to spot potential leads for their businesses. Could we sell space for press releases to appear verbatim in print, in a clearly labeled section? We could – if we felt it benefited the reader

If we then chose to do more with those press release stories we could – but it would an editorial judgement. And that’s where the idea of putting the word advertorial at the top of content containing press releases falls down – it doesn’t take into account the editorial judgement made by the newsroom.

The debate on churnalism seems to focus on press releases making it into print. Press releases are often written by journalists, talented writers paid for being such. The churnalism search engine flags up examples of churnalism based on how similar a story is to a selected press release.

What it doesn’t do is reveal whether a reporter has checked the facts of a press release. In effect, the churnalism search engine tells us it’s ok to use press releases as long as we rewrite them.

It creates a false sense of being able to spot churnalism. And so to would putting advertorial at the top of articles including press release content. We’d be worse off, not better off, if we flagged up wherever press releases were present in content.

Footnote: Trevor and I ‘won’ the debate according to the vote at the end – although that perhaps had more to do with the general dislike for the word advertorial!

One comment

  1. I see one problem with churnalism that isn’t being addressed. <>, What does a newsroom do when two press releases come in, stating things that are exactly opposite to one another?
    Are they going to present both opposing opinions as facts? For instance: Euthanasia is Good for you (by “Right to Die, Incorportated”) and Life is Precious (by “Live and Let Live”)?

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