Media houses in Nigeria utilize information subsidies (for example, press releases) in their day-to-day operations. News agencies also use subsidies as editorial content. There are journalists in Nigeria operating as correspondents in various states for their media houses who mostly rely on press releases and such information subsidies. They hardly make efforts to re-write press releases to at least, give a different angle to the content. They just use the press releases the way they come. This is a practice called ‘Churnalism’ which refers to using press releases from organizations exactly the way they are. Churnalism is a copy-and-paste practice of recycling contents of press releases and other Public Relations (PR) materials without any effort to add to, re-angle or enrich the content any way. This is actually not a professional practice because it could compromise editorial independence of the media. Churnalism is a form of information subsidy extended to media houses to augment their news content.
The concept “churnalism” refers to copy-pasting of press releases by news agencies or media organizations as part of their editorial content. This is the journalistic practice of recycling materials especially from public relations executives given to media houses as information subsidy. The word was coined by BBC journalist, Waseem Zakir, in 2008 while describing the disturbing observation that several stories found in the media were not original but reports from second-hand materials like press releases from various organizations and stories from news agencies. The concept was made popular by Nick Davies in his seminal book Flat Earth News published in 2009, used to describe a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added. Churnalism refers to the prevalent practice in journalism where press releases and other stories provided by news agencies, and other forms of pre-packaged material, are used in place of reported news.
Churnalism is growing in journalism practice because of its advantage of reducing the cost involved in original news-gathering and investigation, including confirmation of sources. The rise of Internet news and decline in advertising revenue has led to the need to cut cost by media houses and this is promoting the practice of churnalism.
Churnalism is not new in the field of journalism. In the 1920s Edward Bernays was writing about “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” as an “important element in democratic society.” In the 1950s Vance Packard warned about “the large scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes,” typically “beneath our level of awareness.” These were indications of the rising practice of churnalism which was a trick utilized by PR people
In today’s society, more quantities of PR material are produced every day, and as Martin Moore writes, a good chunk of these PR materials makes it into the independent media. Research by Cardiff University, which Nick Davies used to inform his book, found that 54 percent of news articles in the U.K. press can be at least partially sourced to PR. This study only represents what happened in the national press. Many local papers rely even more heavily on press releases.
The problem which stems from this over-reliance on press releases and other second hand materials, as Davies writes, is that “this material, whether or not it is truthful, is designed specifically to promote or suppress stories in order to serve the interests of political, commercial and other groups.” This promotion or suppression is more effective for public relations if it is disguised from public view. Since the media organizations that use the second hand materials do not want the public to know the source of the materials, they avoid anything that will indicate the content was from a PR handout.
The argument is not that all churnalism is bad. There are definitely stories from press releases that could be used as they are or changed a bit. But the fact is that such reports should not make up a greater percentage of a news outlet’s editorial content. There are breaking news stories in Nigeria that come from press releases or as happens these days, tweets from certified social media accounts of government image managers. In Nigeria for instance, the death of Abba Kyari, former Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, was first announced on tweeter by Femi Adesina, Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to the President. News about medical breakthroughs, major government announcements, exciting new consumer products, calling off or suspension of strikes by labour unions, are among several interesting reports media houses can get from press releases and information handouts from PR people. The fact is that press releases and other PR information handouts are also relevant in journalism. However, not making effort to provide independent news content is what becomes dangerous about churnalism practice in journalism. Meanwhile not all press releases make it into the media. Rigorous gate-keeping functions keep a lot of them not found newsworthy away from the media.
The worrisome level of journalism practice probably made a group, Media Standards Trust, to create an independent, non-commercial site called churnalism.com that lets people paste in press releases and compare them with all the articles published in the national press, the BBC, and Sky News online. Here is how it works. When someone pastes in some text and clicks “compare,” the churn engine compresses the text entered and then searches for similar compressions (or “common hashes”). If the engine finds any articles where the similarity is greater than 20 percent, then it suggests the article may be churn. Churnalism.com is powered off the back of the database of over three million compressed articles in journalisted.com, according to The Media Today. However, churnalism.com provides people with a tool to help distinguish between journalism and churnalism. But some journalist might be forced to think twice before putting their byline at the top of the next press release, and link to it instead. This is just an attempt at exposing the level of churnalism in media practice, not a plan to stop the practice.
Media organizations will continue to copy and paste press releases. The strategy used by PR people these days is to send the press releases to news agencies instead of going straight to the news desks of media houses. This makes it easy to move stories from PR desks (through agencies) to news desks of media organizations.
Churnalism practice in Nigeria is not entirely to be jettisoned overboard but what is required is for journalists to understand the need for editorial independence in other to effectively play their watchdog role in the society. Though there is need for healthy and uncontrolled flow of information and ideas upon which the public can make informed choices in any democracy, journalists have the task of actively gathering information from various sources, packaging this information into news and communicating it to the public. Reliance on news releases reflects some form of laziness on the part of journalists, especially if such information subsidy is what dominates editorial content of a media organization.