As the Columbia Journalism Review revealed in a recent op-ed, “Churnalism” may be the next new concept on all of our radar screens. But is it really something that we all need to worry about? I don’t think so — if we’re doing the right things in the right ways. And that’s an important distinction.
The term churnalism describes the recycling (or churning) of press releases into journalistic (journalism) news. A new website (Churnalism.com) in the UK compares press release text with the content produced by British newspapers, as well as the BBC and Sky News. When the similarity is greater than 20 percent, Churnalism.com suggests the content may be churn rather than true journalism.
Critics in the UK say that this exposure of journalistic news as public relations material could undermine PR professionals’ ability to influence their clients’ publics, and that journalists will suffer a loss of credibility when their dependence on PR for content is revealed.
Journalists and PR professionals have always had a symbiotic relationship based on a complex balance. PR pros want access to the mass-media channels that journalists control, and journalists want the content and access to key industry leaders, executives and other infleuncers that PR provides.
For the most part, PR pros benefit since the information they provide receives the third-party endorsement of established mass-media channels. Journalists, meanwhile, benefit since public relations material helps supplement diminishing journalistic resources in a time of growing content demand.
And while each has needs that sometimes seem in conflict — one with telling an objective story; the other with telling a persuasive story — both sides have a common goal, which is to provide the public with information they need to make informed decisions.
But none of this is really new, and none of it really changes the fundamentals that undergird good public relations and good journalism.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ivy Lee, a key player in public relations’ evolution to maturity issued a “Declaration of Principles” to editors across the country that dealt with this very issue.
One of Lee’s principles was that PR should operate in the open and that material supplied to editors should be real news, not advertising disguised as news, as had been the practice in the past. A few years, later Edward Bernays, the man who articulated the two-way nature of public relations, followed suit. While he recognized the strength of public relations as a tool for the “engineering of public consent,” he also accepted the responsibility for providing news that really was news. In a widely viewed interview for a Bill Moyers PBS broadcast that was taped around the time of his 90th birthday, Bernays made it clear that his press releases always contained information with real news value.
Good journalists have and should always operate as skeptics who check and double check sources to make sure that the articles and features they write are based on facts and written objectively. Trust for journalist (as for public relations practitioners) is a sacred asset. A commitment to clarity and quality of mass media channels is essential and society expects nothing less.
PRSA also understands the importance of a balanced relationship between journalism and public relations. A core principle in the PRSA Code of Ethics calls for protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.
Do the right things in the right ways and churnalism won’t be a concept that any of us need to worry about — now or in the future.
Stephen D. Iseman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, serves on the PRSA Board of Directors, and is a professor of communication arts and public relations at Ohio Northern University.