Taking Plagiarism Out of Journalism, One Story at a Time

The Sunlight Foundation creates tools to keep the media on their toes.




This is pretty freaking brilliant.

In newsrooms all over, reporters get press releases by the bushel. There are services like PRWeb and PR Newswire that reporters can use to find story ideas. They can even subscribe to get e-blasts on specific topics, such as healthcare or banking. Or media ethics. Press releases provide a way for the government, businesses, labor unions and anyone who has something to say to get in front of a reporter. In of itself, this is not a bad thing. It is a useful tool.

But... sometimes... a story that comes out sounds a whole lot like the release it comes from. Sometimes it's word for word. (Which kind of, but sometimes not exactly, could be called a free advertorial. Just sayin'.) Other times, direct quotes, or sections of the release, are copied and pasted into the story. Sure, copying a quote from a press release means the quote will be exact—yet often they're taken out of context.

Churnalism is a product launched last week by the Sunlight Foundation that enables media consumers to conduct a side-by-side comparison of news stories in American media and press releases they (may) come from. The project is modeled after a similar British product that came out a couple of years ago.

One thing I think is exceptionally cool about this is that in addition to press releases from a variety of places, it also compares the articles to Wikipedia. As a reporter, I have no problem looking at a Wiki site to get source IDEAS, but copying and pasting from Wikipedia? Sorry kids, that is just plain ol' plagiarism. And will very possibly be wrong.

Check out the tutorial by the Sunlight Foundation to see how it works. Too bad this wasn't around in the days of Jayson Blair—it could have saved the New York Times a lot of embarrassment.

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