Print journalism has lost its swagger. Commercialization and globalization have ripped its heart out, leaving journalists to make do with second hand material. Welcome to the era of churnalism, the copy-paste journalism that fills today’s papers. In a nutshell, that’s the core message in Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News and one he drove home effortlessly during a packed public lecture yesterday in Utrecht’s stately Gertrudiskapel.
Nick Davies is a master storyteller. His attempt to “uncover falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the news media”, is eloquent, entertaining and convincing. From the astro turf PR strategies of Paul Hucker to the Ninja Turtle Syndrome, flat earth news is ubiquitous. What else can you make of the horrible story about the model amputee that’s in the news today? The coverage leading up to the Obama inauguration is another case in point, says Davies.
There hasn’t been a single line of journalism in Obama reportage, simply because no one bothers to ask the question: will Obama make a difference?
As much as I am drawn to the notions of churnalism and flat earth news, there are some issues which beg further questions.
Churnalism is like steroid use in cycling. I have yet to meet the first journalist who openly admits to ‘churning’ second hand copy into news. One journalist I spoke with after the lecture said he does it “maybe 4 times a month”. A recent Tekstblad interview did not find a single journalist who churned news. The journalists I interviewed at the start of my fieldwork claimed that when it does happen, it usually involves low-impact stories, such as product news.
Also, it’s ironic that Nick Davies is such a skilled PR man himself. As PR professional Danny Rogers argues
His book was released on a Sunday for a Monday, he’s on the Today Programme, he does a series of events, he’s an excellent speaker and he comes up with terms like ‘churnalism’ and ‘Flat Earth News’. And then there’s the classic technique, the study, from Cardiff University, to back up his claims.
You could argue that Flat Earth News is too pessimistic, that it offers no solutions to the informational crisis in news media, that it ignores the emergence of novel, amateur news sources such as Twitter and that the study on which the book was based is not unproblematic. How exactly, was source reliance measured? What constitutes churnalism? I have argued elsewhere that textual co-location need not automatically imply churnalism. In other words, that a news article shares keywords with a press release is not a sure tell sign of news recycling. My own research illustrates that reproductive newswriting is more complex than churnalism suggests. Evidence from logging files and video screen captures indicate that journalists routinely draw on a number of sources, even in articles that, at face value, scream churnalism. In fact, in analysing these logging files, I see more paraphrasing than I see copying, let alone copy-pasting.
Does this mean I believe churnalism does not happen? Of course not. The evidence is overwhelming. However, I argue that research should try to better understand what churnalism is and isn’t.