Tuesday, 1 March 2011

'Churnalism' website must not be used as an attack dog on PR industry

Flat Earth News (Nick Davies) was a monumental game changer in the debate as to how the 24/7 new media culture has had a damaging impact on the quality of journalism.

In the book, Davies is scathing about the 'copy and paste' techniques used by certain publications upon receipt of a press release. Now, the Media Standards Trust has launched the website http://churnalism.com/ to help people check press releases against articles and see how much of this has simply been copied and disseminated around the world.

The website itself has the potential to have a positive impact on journalism if it encourages fact checking and real journalism in place of copying and pasting. It could also, however, be detrimental for several reasons.

Firstly, if an article becomes infamous for its appearance on the site, then a journalist could feasibly receive real damage to their career; yet we have no background as to why the decision to publish the press release in full took place. It could have been a line manager's decision. The reality is also that commercial pressures require spaces to be filled and if the release is 'non commercial' and of genuine interest, then large parts of it could be of legitimate use.

At this point I must point out that although I work in public relations, I value relationship building and acting as a door to a source for journalists, I have no interest in 'forcing' copy on to a page or not recognising the value of an independent and pluralistic media - I even defended the media in my MA dissertation after John Lloyd's What the Media is Doing to Our Politics book.

I think it will also be a shame if the site is used as an attack dog against PR per se. Public relations is about managing reputations. It is every organisation's right to manage their reputation and the practice has been going on since the dawn of society. Yes, from time to time, methods can be criticsed but so can journalists'http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11306595.

So, simply using content from a press release isn't a crime. There might be legitimate insights via statistics, quotes or facts. A journalist can write around this and use counter arguments if needed, but there could be a large number of words used in a release and an article; without the article being compromised.

So, churnalism.com certainly puts the cat amongst the pigeons but whether or not it is here to say, who knows. It also strikes very much as a 'PR stunt' by the Media Standards Trust, does it not?

And there's the irony, simply defining something as 'PR' is in many ways an anachronistic exercise and one would be better served to understand the way reputation managers work with the media in today's climate.

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