Danny Rogers: Rigorous media are basis for healthy PR

The Media Standards Trust's decision to launch churnalism.com last week - a site that enables users to see how press releases have been 'churned' into media news stories - reignites the debate started by Nick Davies' Flat Earth News three years ago.

For PR professionals the site is actually a useful tool to see the sort of coverage they have achieved with their press releases.

But of course this was not the motivation for the launch. There are many who believe journalists are increasingly guilty of churnalism - churning out 'PR fluff' yet positioning it as well-sourced and corroborated revelations.

There is some truth in this. Most publishers have seen sharp revenue falls as the joint result of the recession and structural changes in the media. They have therefore been forced to cut the number of journalists they employ. And yet there is still no shortage of output in terms of pages, indeed publications, in the average WHSmith.

PR material generated by businesses, government and charities has always provided a significant chunk of journalistic output, but the aforementioned economics suggest this proportion must have grown.

There is nothing wrong with this as long as the consumers of the information recognise the game. Much of this PR-generated news is either informative - government health advice - or simply entertaining. It becomes a problem when important stories are distorted through lack of journalistic rigour - the initial scare over the MMR vaccine - or in publications where there is no balance with genuine journalism.

There is still much to admire in British journalism, as exemplified by The Guardian's work on Wikileaks or The Daily Telegraph's MPs' expenses revelations. But if too much of any publication's output is simply unchecked third-party content, these media will eventually lose credibility and the readers will lose interest.

I have always maintained that the British PR industry is so strong and dynamic exactly because we have such a rigorous, diverse and fiercely independent media. Any dilution of this important democratic filter will be to the long-term detriment of those people who earn a living through PR.

There is nothing wrong with organisations communicating openly and creatively with the outside world. Indeed, this production of quality content underpins a vibrant, pluralist democracy.

But if organisations are churning out rubbish, and so-called journalists are mere accomplices in this process, we will all be taking part in a depressing downward spiral.

danny.rogers@haymarket.com.

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