From “Journalism” to “Churnalism” and the rise of computational or robot journalism

From journalism to Churnalism and the rise of computational or robot journalism

“Stealing, Copying, Making own: I used to get angry and frustrated when my copies got ‘stolen’ and used without attribution. Not any more, because it’s so rampant. Exclusive quotes from a copy I did yesterday were used without attribution….” laments a journalist on social media. He has been a journalist for more than two and a half decades.

Do we “journ” or do we “churn” the lism? “Lism” here being an act, a practise or a process as per the Merriam Webster. It is a dilemma as great as “to be or not to be” and that remains the universal question in the quest for truth! Truth, really! Facts, are they? Churned and hashed, absolutely! Distorted, almost always! Biased, well you do need some ideology to survive! Aha, ideology? Where, When, How? It’s more data science not even analytics, reporting and “going to the ground to get the real story” – is just another line on the wall, been there, done that, not gonna be done anymore, when you have the world wide web and some people like the “grumpy lamenting journo” who actually dug up information, real ones at that and wrote that copy from where the copy got copied into copies to be made copy for the newspapers, online portals, magazines and the works – this is where “journalism” ceases to be and the great big  drama of hash and rehash begins, “churnalism” is thus born!!

In the year 2008 Waseem Zakir, a journalist working for the BBC said, “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.” The word stuck and Nick Davies, journalist and author of the book ” Flat Earth News”  converted the same into an act, practise, process i.e. a “Lism” and thus lexiconed  “Churnalism” to describe what happens when a journalist fails to perform the basic functions of his profession like covering the beat! Davies further says in his book “This is journalists who are no longer out gathering but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.” Newspapers like “The Guardian” have accepted Davies’s theory of the “media having been rendered to mass producers of distortion” and media houses being compared to a “factory production line” Davies further writes,  “They found two striking things. First, when they tried to trace the origins of their ‘facts’, they discovered that only 12% of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With 8% of the stories, they just couldn’t be sure. The remaining 80%, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry. Second, when they looked for evidence that these ‘facts’ had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.” And here Davies and we are talking about the best journalistic environment of the world “The British Press” – if we are to get into the nitty gritties of the scenario in the third world countries like India for instance where the only metropolitan city in the northeastern corner of the country boasts of a plethora of more than 300 web portals offering news, views and the works, one can imagine the dynamics of the “news churning factories” that operate in the bigger and better metros. This is probably the greatest height that “churnalism” as an act or a process can reach. Yet we still claim it to be journalism, new age journalism to be more precise when all that we are doing is “Stealing, Copying, Making Own!

If this is not enough, the soul shattering journey from journalism to churnalism, the media is being hounded by another new age process which is being termed as an alibi, an assistant or helper in comman parlance, helping to expedite the process of making news. When did we make news ever? News was unearthed, truth was gathered from sources that you built over the years, the report was then compiled, the facts of the report verified, edited, polished, given a headline with a twist and served to the public on a platter that we called the “morning go getter,” the newspaper that had been an integral part of your morning along with the “earl greys or the perfect muscatel from the hills of Darjeeling!” Entirely man made, with the ethics and intelligence of the journalists of yester years who could claim their status as the fourth pillar, the guardians of the rights of the people and the upholders of the truth. But coming back to the making of news and the intelligence of the artificial kind, news nowadays is being made by helpers with Artificial Intelligence – in other words journalism has become robotic! Yes you heard it right, Robots are churning news and “The Washington Post” is one of the first big newsroom using this tool, they call it the “Heliograf.” The first year of its use, Heliograf churned out 850 news items and even earned an award for “Excellence in use of Bots” for its coverage of the 2016 election in the US. 

Now what is “Robot Journalism?” This is journalism where news articles are generated by computer programs and artificial intelligence, or to a common man like us, it’s news that is not made by a human. Is it news then? There lies the million dollar question, some say that’s not news, that’s data and then some again refute but is news not data? The new age gurus swear by this kinda journalism stating that automation is here only to supplement the journalists and to increase productivity by maximising limited resources while cutting costs and increasing the profits for the media companies. Purists mostly fear the loss of jobs along with the loss of the human touch in the story but these are not exzactly the worry lines on the interface of robot journalism. The problem is the creation of the “great digital divide” where more than the language or the reporting, journalists will be requiring skills in computer science and data analytics.

Getting back to the where we started about “Stealing, Copying, Making Own” against the foundations of journalism being all about creativity, curiosity and storytelling and also about withholding accountability of Governments and putting forth the truth to the public on issues related to their fundamental rights and duties, the threshold has truly been created for the degenerative environs of the “press” and the act of “Churnalism” but not without check. The Media Standards Trust, a charitable organisation has started a website which promises to expose the extent of “stealing, copying and making own” of the articles. This website allows the users to paste the press releases into a “churn engine” which compares the same instantly with a pre-owned database of more than three million articles, thereafter generating a “churn rating” on the said press release or article.. How this helps in checking or correcting “churnalism” is still a discussion in progress while the number of churnalists increases by the day endangering the act of journalism by rendering them less critical, which as some say shakes and weakens the basic foundation of our democracy! 

NB : From “Seek the Truth” to “Stealing, Copying, Making Own” Journalism has sure come a long way to enter the hallowed portals of the big fat “Churn” of degeneration!