Churnalism and journalistic compromise

Anthony Cox points to a recent post by science blogger APGaylard concerning a complaint to the BBC about an alleged case of “churnalism” on the corporation’s news website. This Cox defines as “rewriting press releases rather than news reporting”.

I’m afraid there is no clear boundary between churnalism and serious news reporting, and I cannot comment in detail on BBC environment reporter Matt McGrath’s piece “Britain’s happiest places mapped”. Sometimes, rewriting a press release after attempting to extract a bit more information is the right thing to do. It all depends on the story and its perceived importance.

Journalists have a responsibility to cast a critical eye over press releases that cross their desks and land in email inboxes. But quick decisions have to be made regarding the newsworthiness of stories, and how much work a journalist can or should devote to them. Compromises (and the odd mistake) are inevitably made.

The real difficulty comes with organisations and their PRs who for whatever reason will not provide any more information than is contained in a press release. This is a common practice, and not just with government agencies and powerful private corporations. In the case of science reporting, it can often be a challenge for journalists to gather detailed information and have their questions answered following conference presentations, while following established protocols. Deadlines are often tight, and news has a limited shelf-life. PRs know this, and often exploit it.

So how does your average, hard-pressed newshound respond to this kind of spin? Spike the story? Possibly, though they might then incur the wrath of a stressed-out editor desperate for copy. Any copy. How about retaliating against the PRs responsible by reporting the story with a deliberately negative tone, or even ridicule? This is tempting, but unprofessional.

Churnalism is a bad thing, and I will not defend fellow journalists who indulge in it. In the case of alleged churnalism highlighted here, APGaylard was quite right to question McGrath about his report of what is clearly Bad Science. But the blogger then went over the top in demanding that the piece be pulled. What I would have done is suggest to the reporter that he find an expert to counter with some criticism of the research being reported. That would have taken no more than a couple of quick phone calls, and served as a warning to the PRs who spun the story.