BOB GARFIELD: A new website in the UK called Churnalism.com aims to help the public distinguish between independent journalism and reports that simply regurgitate information from publicists. Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust, the nonprofit that’s launched the site. He explains that he finds the articles and relies on his readers to find the press releases that were the original source. The site allows users to compare those press releases with the actual articles to see how much they overlap.
MARTIN MOORE: The site was inspired by research suggesting that over half of news articles were at least in some part based on press releases. And one understands why people would cut and paste a quote from a press release. One can understand why people would cut and paste figures. But whole great chunks of it, you know, in some cases over 60 or 70 percent, you start to really question, actually, the degree to which this is original journalism at all. Our hope is to a certain extent it will empower journalists when they are approached by people in public relations, when they're put under enormous pressure by their editor to churn out copy based on press releases, that they will be able to push back and say [LAUGHS], listen, I do not want to be labeled a churnalist.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I spent quite a number of years watching The Avengers so I have this image of a bunch of rumpled people in sort of -
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - tweedy clothing going out there and doing good, but I also happen to know -
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: - that you went off type by conducting a sting operation.
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about it.
MARTIN MOORE: We realized a few weeks before we launched the site that we were in a Catch-22 in that here we were building a site, and we, we would rely on the public to paste in press releases and to find press releases for us, but there was a very good chance the public would never know about us, because why would the press talk about us and print articles about us when we were criticizing them and trying to expose this kind of relationship between public relations and journalism? So we went to chat to an independent film director called Chris Atkins, and Chris [LAUGHS] – Chris, quite rightly, said, well, best way to let people know about churnalism is to do churnalism, to create a bunch of press releases based on fake news stories – I mean, stuff that’s silly and funny and, and, and if you do a bit of digging, easy to find out that it’s not real – but to put out there and to see if news organizations pick it up and they publish it.
BOB GARFIELD: You invented a product and created a website for it, and it is the most preposterous idea-
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - ever forward as a consumer good, one that -
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: - no journalist with any sense of skepticism would ever run unchecked.
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHS] Chris invented what he called the “chastity garter belt,” which a woman would put around her thigh and had built-in technology which would record, by various clever scientific means, like her, her rising pulse rate and, and moisture levels on her leg, whether or not she was about to be unfaithful. And if she was, it would text a message to her partner warning him [BOB LAUGHS], so he could rush back and [LAUGHS] either forestall or catch, catch her before she did [LAUGHS] so -
BOB GARFIELD: And just to reiterate, no news organization, no matter how slipshod, could pick up a press release about this product and run it without checking to see if the thing is real, never, ever, ever.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Just in time for Valentine’s Day, nothing says love like lingerie that sends a text when your lady is about to be unfaithful.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The chastity garter comes equipped with a hidden microchip that claims to detect a rapidly rising pulse and surface moisture levels on the skin. If these telltale signs of arousal occur, a text is sent to alert the woman’s husband or boyfriend. It comes in lace or silk and costs about a hundred dollars.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Boy, couldn't she also be attacked by a lion or something?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Wouldn't that jump your pulse rate up a little bit?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Or playing, playing tennis?
BOB GARFIELD: Where was that from?
MARTIN MOORE: That was WGN-TV in Chicago. The story was picked up by The Times of India, in the States, in Slovakia, in Greece, in Israel, all around the world. Once one large news organization has published something, then many other news organizations accept that the story has been verified, and the story is properly sourced, and, therefore, pick it up and don't question it themselves. That has a domino effect.
BOB GARFIELD: You also investigated the practice of finding news sources on Facebook. How, how did that work out?
MARTIN MOORE: Well, we were curious not only about news outlets cutting and pasting text from press releases, but also from social networks like, like Facebook and others. And there was a, a parti [LAUGHS] – a particular story about Number 10, where the, the Prime Minister lives and his office is, adopting a rescue cat, which they called Larry. This story went literally all over the newspapers, all over the 24-hour news television stations. It was the, the topic of discussion for a week. So Chris put together a Facebook page [LAUGHS] by a character, a, a pseudonym, Tim Sutcliffe, calling to return what he suggested was not actually Larry the cat, but Joe the cat, to its rightful owner, who was his aunt Margaret, who had lost the cat just a, a month or so previously. He wrote up some text explaining it was clearly his Aunt Margaret’s cat and waited to see what happened. And sure enough, one of the biggest news websites, not just in the UK but in the world, saw the story, copy and pasted the story, and published the story not just online but initially on the [LAUGHS] Page 3 of the paper, complete with photo of Aunt Marge standing beside the photograph [BOB LAUGHS] of Joe the cat, with claims from her nephew that she would be looking for DNA tests to prove that the cat was [BOB LAUGHS], in fact, hers. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Martin, I have to ask you, are you real?
MARTIN MOORE: [LAUGHS] Yes, it’s funny you should ask that because there were, there were quite a number [LAUGHING] of people wondering whether, actually, this was a hoax of a hoax. There is a, an industry journal for the press release industry, and, and they published a big piece today highly critical of [LAUGHS], of our site, the irony being, of course, that we weren't asked for comment. They did rely on a press release. But we then, we then were contacted to ask if we would like to respond. And I said, how do you mean? What do you mean? With an article or with a statement? And I was told [LAUGHS], no, no, with a press release.
[LAUGHTER] Okay? At which point I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So [LAUGHS], it goes on.
BOB GARFIELD: And on and on and on. Martin, thank you so much.
MARTIN MOORE: Not at all. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Martin Moore is director of the Media Standards Trust, a nonprofit in the UK.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Andrew Parsons and Carlin Galietti, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. [FUNDING CREDITS]