‘Reporters need to ask what they’re not being told’

It has been interesting to see the word 'churnalism'finally gain currency in recent weeks as a result of Nick Davies using it in and around his book Flat Earth News. Journalism training should not turn out churnalists.

I first came across the word churnalism several years ago after an NUJ meeting. Talk in the pub got round to bemoaning the fact that reporters were only rarely leaving newsrooms to check things out, due to staff cutbacks and a culture of 'presenteeism'– another good word for a bad trend.

The union's then northern organiser Miles Barter said he knew a journalist who had come up with a name for this process: churnalism. I called this chap, Waseem Zakir of BBC Scotland, and asked what he meant by it.

'Ten or 15 years ago you would go out and find your own stories and it was proactive journalism,'he explained. 'It's become reactive now. 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."

Inspired

Too true. Apart from the simple pleasure of the rhyme, the word seemed to convey so much about what was wrong with so much journalism.

I remember Googling it at the time and coming up with precisely no hits. Inspired by Waseem's critique, a handful of us began using the term, but it sank largely without trace until Nick Davies started throwing it around recently. When I began writing this piece, churnalism had 300 pages on Google; as I am finishing it, the number has topped 1,000 – and I'm not that slow. By the time you read this, who knows? And, whisper it, Google does not find everything.

Pervasive

So why has it finally taken off? Well, Davies is a biggish name and he has shouted loudly. But maybe also because the phenomenon of churnalism, already clearly visible to many at the sharp end of reporting back in the early Noughties, has now become so pervasive that it can no longer be ignored.

It has been interesting too to see how quick editors are to rubbish the academic research linked to Davies's book, that shows just how much published material originates either from PR or PA; this from some of the same newspapers that run countless stories based on research, including some pretty spurious surveys.

It is good to question research – I would question why that particular study appeared to lump together agency copy and PR material, for example – but that should go for all research, not just that into our own trade.

That's why anyone training to be a journalist should learn not to churn out the line they are fed from the news release or the executive summary, but to ask what they are not being told.

Journalism students can also benefit from doing academic research themselves. That way, when they cover such studies in the future, they might know where the bodies are likely to be buried.

Tony Harcup is the author of The Ethical Journalist and teaches journalism at the University of Sheffield

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