Churnalism is a form of journalism in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking. The neologism "churnalism" has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008.
In his book Flat Earth News, the British journalist Nick Davies reported a study at Cardiff University by Professor Justin Lewis and a team of researchers which found that 80% of the stories in Britain's quality press were not original and that only 12% of stories were generated by reporters. The result is a reduction of quality and accuracy, as the articles are open to manipulation and distortion.
BBC journalist Waseem Zakir has been credited for coining the term churnalism. According to Zakir, the trend towards this form of journalism involves reporters becoming more reactive and less proactive in searching for news - "You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote. It's affecting every newsroom in the country and reporters are becoming churnalists."
An editorial on the matter in the British Journalism Review saw this trend as terminal for current journalism, "...a harbinger of the end of news journalism as we know it, the coroner's verdict can be nothing other than suicide." Others, such as Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian, see the issue as over-wrought, saying that there was never a golden age of journalism in which journalists were not subject to such pressures.
In 2011, the Daily Mail reported that under former editor of The Sun and News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, "Scores, if not hundreds, of front-page stories were written by the PR men. They would think up a headline and story and The Sun and News of the World would run it, word for word. Some of them were complete fiction. Meanwhile, proper stories by proper journalists were buried deep inside the paper."
Churnalism does not only occur in newspapers; for example, Chris Anderson's wide use of "writethroughs" in his book Free has been labelled churnalism, and psychiatrist David Healy has criticised past use of ghost-written copy in academic journals.
Traditional newspapers have cut staff as their advertising revenue has declined because of competition from other media such as television and the internet. They no longer have sufficient staff to generate news stories by making the rounds of civic and business activities. Local newspapers and trade magazines are commonly produced by only one or two staff and these rely upon stories which are increasingly brought to them by professional PR representatives, according to a senior public relations professional. When the matter was debated at the Foreign Press Association, it was agreed that there was a relationship between the numbers of PR staff employed and journalists unemployed.
Other commentators have said the modern journalism is increasingly being performed in a cheaper, high-volume way, describing the resulting product with derogatory terms such as newszak (combination of "news" and "muzak"), infotainment and junk-food journalism.
The creators of a documentary film, Starsuckers, created fake stories about celebrities such as Amy Winehouse, whose hair was said to have caught fire, and Pixie Geldof, who was said to have padded her bra with sweets. Several newspapers including the Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Star and The Sun published these hoaxes. The Daily Mail was the only newspaper tested which did not publish any of the fake stories. Once the stories were published, numerous other publications across the world such as Cosmopolitan, the New York Post, the Times of India and Turkish Weekly picked up and recycled the stories. The director, Chris Atkins, said that untrue stories of this kind are now to be found in all news media.
In their book, No Time to Think, authors Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. Feldman, emphasised the role of speed in degrading the quality of modern journalism. An example is given of the BBC guide for online staff which gives advice to ensure good quality but also the contradictory advice, "Get the story up as fast as you can… We encourage a sense of urgency—we want to be first."
Some organizations and tools have arisen to combat churnalism. In April 2013, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit which advocates for openness and transparency, in partnership with the UK's Media Standards Trust, released an online tool to discover churn. It uses a database of known Press Releases and compares the text of a submitted URL to determine what percentage of it is derived churn.
The Register commented that some level of "churnalism" is both normal and healthy for news organisations, but said it considered the Media Standards Trust was linked to campaigns supported by "wealthy and powerful individuals and celebrities" in favour of "state control of the media" in the UK, and claimed there was significant irony in the Sunlight Foundation tool launch announcement itself being "uncritically churned by many of the usual suspects".
- Sally Jackson (June 5, 2008), Fearing the rise of 'churnalism', The Australian
- Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin (2008), The Handbook of Journalism Studies, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1410618064
- John Mair (May 19, 2009), Hacks beat Flacks to knockout in Pall Mall debate
- Nick Davies (2008), Flat Earth News, Chatto and Windus, ISBN 9780701181451
- Gary Merrill, Criticising the critical, The Journalist
- Tony Harcup (2004), Journalism, pp. 3–4, ISBN 9780761974994
- "Trivia pursuit", British Journalism Review 19 (1), 2008: 3–4, doi:10.1177/0956474808090188
- Herman Wasserman (30 June 2008), "The dangers of ‘churnalism’", The Media
- Press standards, privacy and libel 2, House of Commons, 21 April 2009
- "Insider reveals: 'PR men would think up a story and Rebekah's Sun and News of the World would run it, word for word. Some were complete fiction '". Daily Mail (London). 2011-07-09.
- Andrew Orlowski (2009-06-25). "WiReD editor 'fesses to churnalism: Information wants to be stolen". The Register.
- David Nyhan (May 2, 1991), When trash appears as news, Boston Globe
- Jim R. Macnamara, The Impact of PR on the Media, Mass Communication Group
- newszak Word Spy. Retrieved: 2011-07-09.
- Aeron Davis (2010), Political Communication and Social Theory, Taylor & Francis, p. 60, ISBN 9780415547123
- Paul Lewis (14 October 2009). "Starsuckers celebrity hoax dupes tabloids". The Guardian.
- Howard Rosenberg, Charles S. Feldman (2008), No Time to Think, ISBN 9780826429315
- Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. Feldman (2008-08-19), Why Is Speed So Bad?, USA Today
- Ariel Bogle (April 24, 2013). "Churnalism: helping you read journalism and not press releases". Melville House. Retrieved April 23, 2013.
- Page, Lewis (26 April 2013). "Announcement of 'churnalism detector' gets furiously churned". The Register. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
- John May interviews Nick Davies
- Search engine for detecting churnalism in the UK, Media Standards Trust
- Another search engine for detecting churnalism, Sunlight Foundation + Media Standards Trust