Kabir, a young journalist working with a renowned newspaper, was assigned by his editor to cover a news event regarding an upcoming development project of the government. From his perspective the event turned out to be a damp squib and he found himself spending most of the time by noting mere data and statistics. As soon as the press briefing ended, Kabir explored himself plunging into the chasm of reality and found out that things were not as smooth as they were supposed to be.
He could not even take a single bite from the experts who attended the press briefing. However, as he saw a group of reporters running before the press release, he could not resist himself from grabbing one. Though Kabir could not manage to take opinion from the experts concerned, he nevertheless filed a well-constructed story with the help of the press release. Sadly, back at the office, Kabir could not impress his editor with his story. The editor wanted an eye witness account and that is why the reporter was sent to cover the programme. However, developing his dodgy dossier with quotes gleaned from television and internet, Kabir could not satisfy his editor and left his boss with no option but publishing the press release with quotes from internet.
Let alone investigating and cross checking the fact and data provided by internet and public relations (PR) industry, many reporters these days hardly look into the authenticity and accuracy of the press releases and news. This is how an overwhelming genre of journalism known as ‘Churnalism’ has been evolving over the last couple of decades around the world. Churnalism is a type of journalism that relies on reusing existing material such as press releases and wire service reports instead of original research. BBC journalist Wasim Zakir coined the term ‘Churnalism’ to describe poor practices of modern day journalists who ‘churn’ or recycle news stories off the wire or internet without appropriate critical investigation. According to Zakir, “The trend towards this form of journalism involves reporters becoming more reactive and less proactive in searching for news. You get copy coming on in the wires and reporters churn it out, processing staff and sometimes adding the odd local quote. It is affecting every newsroom in the country and reporters are becoming churnalists.”
For example, I have put a quotation mark in the last paragraph of this article to make it clear to my readers that what parts of the article I have written and what parts I have not. Journalists engaging in churnalism do not bother with this.
On the other hand, if we look at the newspapers, we might find an array of press releases provided by news agencies, internet and public relations officers covering the pages of the newspapers. Less frequently do we find a well-researched and exclusive story even in the prominent dailies. Journalists in the era of internet and public relations are indulging in churning the press releases, internet and agencies and gradually deviating away from the core practice and purpose of journalism.
Gone were the days when journalists were seen travelling out in search for truth and facts. These days, most of the newspaper journalists are chained to their desks waiting for the press releases. This is churnalism by all means. It is saddening that in Bangladesh, the number of Churnalists are increasing and occupying the newsrooms like sensational fake news.
Newspaper offices, because of abundance of such newsmen, are becoming like press machines where most of the journalists are playing the role of printing machine operators who just function the publication material in the press sometimes without seeing the content! It seems that most of the journalists have become lazy in the pocket of PR officers and internet. Thus journalism has been in dire straits due to unethical and unauthentic journalistic practices not only in Bangladesh but also around the world. As press releases and hoax stories flood newsrooms, passionate and diligent journalists should not stop their endeavour to sift fact from fluff. Those who want to practise journalism with integrity should remain aware of the fact that a single exclusive report can change the lives of a thousand people and certainly this is what journalism aims for.
There is no denying that we — the journalists — often have a valid reason for using press releases, and we often need to copy and paste significant chunks, such as official statements and quotes. But it is disgracing that many of the reporters file the press release text verbatim without adding little or no material. If we scrutinize the news stories and their origins at a number of esteemed newspapers in Bangladesh, we might find that only a little percentage of the stories are wholly composed of materials researched by reporters. Most of the stories are found solely constructed from secondary sources material or press releases provided by news agencies and PR officers and internet.
Journalism scholars are of the opinion that in theory, everyday practices of news judgement, news treatment, fact checking, criticizing and interrogating sources are central to day to day journalism. But unfortunately such practices are on the wane due to the manipulation of agencies, wire and public relations industry. The primary task of journalists is to filter out falsehood but unfortunately journalists have become vulnerable to manipulation while getting involved in the mass production of propaganda.
We believe journalists have a lot to do apart from just presenting the data and news event. We can see a number of development projects are going on in Bangladesh and we often see the progress report of the projects in daily newspapers. But it is saddening that we hardly seen any reporter or journalist attempting to recheck the data and investigate the government projects. This is certainly a big threat for future journalism in Bangladesh and newspaper editors can be the life saviour of the journalists in this regard. Editors should encourage journalists to go to the field and come up with exclusive reports rather than fencing them to their desks for churning the internet and press release.
Sayeed Hossain Shuvro is a member of the Editorial Team of Bangladesh Post