The launch of Churnalism.com this week – and the Larry the Cat Facebook hoax with which Chris Atkins fooled the Daily Mail and BBC Radio Norfolk – have been met with a bit of a bristly snort from a few hacks, and it’s pretty understandable. Hands up, all journalists who are absolutely certain they’ve never copied and pasted a press release that might, on reflection, have been a bit whiffy . . . anybody . . . no? No. We’ve all been there. There but for the grace of God, and all that.
But tell someone who’s a punter rather than a journo that it’s pretty standard practice to Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V huge chunks of a press release into a story, sometimes leaving the original words (and spelling mistakes) completely intact, but slap an intro on the top and then put your byline on it, as if you wrote it all, and you’ll get a slightly different reaction. I call it the “Really?” face. People look at you as if to say: “Really? Is that what you do? And you expect me not to punch you in the face, really hard?”
Go on to tell them that the quotes in stories often aren’t anything to do with patient phone calls to key contacts whom you’ve grilled like Paxman, but are, instead, also copied and pasted from a press release, and their withering “Really?” face will only intensify. Go further, and tell them that it’s not entirely unheard of to go hopping around websites looking for stories, then slapping huge chunks of them into your story, making it seem as if you’ve interviewed the person concerned, before once again plopping your byline on top, and they’ll start to develop something of a crinkly mouth. Or, even worse, a look of faint pity.
It’s not just the tabloids, obviously. And not always the tabloids. And not everyone in the tabloids does this. And it’s not necessarily always wrong, even if people are doing it. But that’s a bit beside the point when you realise how non-journalists look upon this kind of thing. To those not steeped in the glorious craft it looks a bit, well, easy.
Everything else suddenly seems suspicious. If the fake Larry the Cat story got in, what else seems less than plausible? What about the fox cub that climbed a really tall building – by using the stairs, I hasten to add, rather than climbing up with little foxy crampons or parachuting from a passing stork? Is all that real? I suppose it might be, but I’m a little wary of stories involving foxes, for some reason.
Ah yes. And what of this week’s new Twitter star Binkie, whose delightfully posh wedding plans have now disappeared from the Telegraph‘s website? Is the whole thing a spoof, possibly designed to provoke class war, or is it just Binkie being Binkie, as only Binkie can be?
Sometimes I can’t tell any more. And I suppose that’s the problem. A bit of Ctrl+C and Cntrl+V here, a bit of non-checking there? It’s nothing deadly serious; of course it isn’t. No one died because a corny old press release got lobbed into a newspaper. But that’s not the problem that punters have with this kind of thing. It erodes the credibility of everything around it, I think.
At least, that’s what the press release says, anyway.