In his recent post at his Guardian blog, Martin Robbins discusses the apparent replacement of value-added journalism with “churnalism,” a form of reporting “in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking” (as Robbins quoted from Wikipedia). He asks whether this sort of reporting was also prevalent in science reporting, before going on to demonstrate that it certainly is, using examples from the UCLA press office.
I would go as far as to speculate that the problem is in fact much worse in science journalism than the rest of the industry. Reporters who are not comfortable with the content and language of a press release are more likely to simply replicate the text. As I mention in my Chiang Mai Citylife Magazine article (next month’s issue) about poor press coverage of dengue fever vaccine development in Thailand, it is common for news stories to be based almost entirely on press releases, and those press releases themselves are frequently exaggerated and warped sources of information. It would be interesting to use the site Robbins used for his analysis to compare various fields of journalism, but that will have to be left up to someone else (http://churnalism.com/).
In an age in which news wires can be created and distributed by anyone with free time and a computer, in which press releases are available on a company’s website, and in which newspapers are dying and the news industry in crisis, churnalism is a dangerous thing. It’s not unexpected. It’s cheaper and takes less staff to simply move news information from one source to another. But it’s even cheaper for readers to abandon those news outlets altogether, and to seek that information out themselves using one of the many great computer tools created for that purpose.