Created by WS-71, 2015

Churnalism—Do you believe in what you read?

The media dark art of “churnalism”, copying press releases straight into articles, is a much-maligned problem, but one that has been hard to catch until now.

Churnalism is a buzzword that blends “churn” and “journalism”, thus creating a portmanteau that refers to unoriginal journalism, which of course implies low quality. BBC journalist Waseem Zakir has been credited for coining the term when he said:

“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.”

Although Zakir is said to have coined the expression, it first gained popularity with the publication of the British journalist, Nick Devies’ book “Flat Earth News”, which identified the growing influence of PR on what is being published each day, among other journalistic misdeeds. In this book he cites a study claiming that more than 80 percent of British news articles are not original and that a mere 12 percent are actually written by journalists.

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."

The following three articles will be used in order to explain the reasons and consequences of churnalism. The first one was published by The Guardian in 2011. Moreover it served as the starting point for the two other ones, which were written by two of the authors of this essay. One of the articles resembles churnalism texts, the other one can be declared as a result of quite good journalism. The causes will be explicated later on.

(1) “Since entering the world of frontbench politics, Guttenberg has hardly been out of the German news, not always for the wrong reasons. He was the first German politician to spell out in public that Germany was "at war" in Afghanistan, rather than just "engaged in a mission" – encouraging some commentators on this side of the Channel to splutter about a revival of Prussian military values. But he also took the radical step of getting rid of Germany's compulsory military service, a move that some argue may lead to the eventual abolition of the country's national army. With his gelled, louche, cashmere-jumper-over-the-shoulder look, he reminds many of the obnoxious "BWL"-types that hung out at their university's business studies department. But his direct style also won him many fans, and his popularity ratings had been impressive.” (The Guardian, 2011)

(2) Even The Guardian writes in benevolently words about the former German Federal Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: his fast political rise and lots of “fans”, who the youngest defence minister in German history had. People liked his appearance. He was close to the media and tackled the obvious problems of German army. With quitting the compulsory military service, he also saved a lot of money for German treasury.

But later on cheating in his PhD thesis came out – a no go in German political and economic world. Several passages were plagiarized. So everything else than a resignation was inadequate and was also required by many people in the German public life.

The general population had a divided opinion about a resignation. Depending on which way you asked, different results in the surveys were showed. Mainly print media and television surveys showed German population furthermore trusted Guttenberg. On the other hand, online surveys displayed completely different results. Der Spiegel (2011) published a list where 65 to 80% of interviewees were supporting a resignation. Even researcher of Forsa survey could not get a consistent result. Pollster surmise that pictures of Guttenberg affects people’s choice.

But no matter what German public thought about Guttenberg, the only justified consequence was his resignation. A politician with faked PhD is not bearable for Germany as one of the most successful.

(3) Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is probably the most popular politician in Germany. And he is one of the best. It has a reason why he holds the titles of the youngest general secretary, youngest secretary of state for trade and business and even youngest secretary of defence! One of the very few high-performance politicians in Germany, so to say. And he would have risen even higher to help Germany: if he didn’t overlook few unlabelled sources in his dissertation. A lack in concentration. Something that happens to us, to every human being, almost every day.  Nonetheless this is about to destroy one of the best German politician´s career. Just because he made little mistakes. To err is human.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg studied law and politics in Bayreuth. After his degree he marries Stephanie Gräfin von Bismarck-Schönhausen. Later on they found a family with 2 beautiful daughters. After little time Guttenberg’s rise in politics began. In 2002 the voters manhandle him in the lower house of German parliament. He makes a great job. So a few years later on the chancellor chooses him as new secretary of state for trade and business for Germany. Everything seemed to be perfect: 4 out of 5 German voters would agree that Karl Theodor is the most ambitious and best politician Germany ever had!

But then in 2011 somebody found the unlabelled citations. A few month later Karl Theodor is forced to resign and with him German´s political ambitions, although it was proven in court that his mistakes were not intentional.

A recent survey showed that he is still the most popular politician in our country.

In advance of the following analysis the authors of this text have to state that they do not want to judge about the guiltiness or innocence and the necessity of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s resignation. But for the explanation of churnalism it is assumed that Guttenberg has not deliberately plagiarized as it was decided in court.

Researches on the topic of churnalism revealed journalists’ lack of time as its decisive cause. In order to verify this reason of time pressure a little experiment with the articles 2 & 3 as its results was carried out. Based on the publication of The Guardian one of the writers had just two hours for researches and the other one could deal with the topic about one day. The results were surprising.

On the one side, the article 2 describes Guttenberg as a good politician, but points out that his resignation was right due to his deliberate plagiarism. On the other side, his rescission is brought into question within article 3 because of his achievements, the missing intentionality and the fact that no human being is immune to make mistakes. Regarding Guttenberg’s acquittal in court, this seems to be the more justifiable opinion. The evaluation of the experiment exposed a significant point. In fact, the author of article 2 did not even read of the decision that was made in court, but only got to know the results of the investigation by the University of Bayreuth and its corresponding press release, which accused Guttenberg of deliberate plagiarism. More extensive researches, which were not possible because of the missing time, would have avoided spreading this untruth.

This shows that journalists cannot be charged for churnalism, because often they do not have enough time to do adequate researches. For that reason, many of them just have to copy without checking to fill the pages and please their bosses. Of course the resulting spread of mistruth is not satisfying for readers, but with the appropriate awareness and considering at least two sources the own opinion-forming process should be successful in the end.