Why churnalism.com should keep highlighting the use of survey ‘news copy’ by the UK press

Surveys are a good way to generate ‘news’. News outlets like to be seen to reflect public attitudes and concerns, and surveys appear to do this. Because of their news value, surveys are frequently commissioned by commercial organisations to promote their products and services. There is nothing wrong with commissioning such a survey, except that these surveys are then often presented in mainstream media as ‘independent news’, which they are not.

OnePoll conducts many such commercial surveys. OnePoll is certainly not the only organisation to use surveys as a news peg, Travelodge do as well for example, but this post focuses on them because it helps to illustrate why churnalism.com is performing a useful function in helping to make the practice more transparent.

Since launching churnalism.com we’ve been in an on-off dialogue with South West News Group (SWNS), the owner of One Poll surveys. SWNS have strongly objected to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com (see SWNS post here). To summarise their objections:

  • The OnePoll surveys are not written up as ‘press releases’ but as ‘news copy’ by professionally trained (quote) ‘news agency journalists’
  • As such they are ‘factually accurate, rigorously checked news copy which needs little or no subbing’
  • This news copy is then ‘distributed direct to national news desks via the SWNS newswire’
  • Because it is written as ‘page-ready news copy’ it is designed to be published almost without alteration in the mainstream media.

It should first be noted that, based on this post, SWNS may have misunderstood the nature and purpose of churnalism.com. It is a tool that allows the public to compare bodies of text with news. Though we encourage people to paste in press releases, they can – and do – paste in lots of other text, such as news agency copy, news articles, Wikipedia entries, even text from plays and books. The site then finds news articles that appear to be closely based on this pasted text. It is not churnalism.com’s job to police what people choose to compare.

But there are a number of reasons why, now I know more about how the SWNS system works, I think it is even more important that churnalism.com raises public awareness about the use of this type of survey ‘news’ by the UK press:

  • The OnePoll surveys that have been written up (and are listed on their site) are commissioned by commercial organisations in order to help promote a product or service. For example:
    • ‘People find true happiness by reaching the age of 50’ says a survey by Engage Mutual Assurance who have an ‘over 50s life cover’ insurance policy (20-1-11)
    • ‘The honeymoon period in marriage ends after just 14 months’ partly because partners put less care into personal hygiene, says a survey by Better Bathrooms (17-02-11)
    • ‘Eight out of ten singletons check out potential future partners online before they ever meet them’ says a survey by www.UKDating.com (5-01-11)
    • ‘Dedicated dog owners walk 23,739 miles during their pet’s lifetime’ according to a survey by esure pet insurance (11-02-11)
  • A key reason commercial organisations commission OnePoll is because the surveys will be written up by journalists in the style of independent news
  • They also know that, because the OnePoll write-ups are distributed via the SWNS ‘news wire’ mainstream news organisations are less likely to view them as a press releases, but rather as independent news (which they are not, at the very least they are ‘branded stories’ to use an SWNS phrase)
  • Because mainstream news organisations do not view them as press releases, they are more likely to publish them virtually unchanged – as with Associated Press or Reuters news copy.

This is great for the commercial organisation which has commissioned the survey because:

This is not so great from the perspective of the public which has been led to believe that that this is not a promotional article written to help sell a product or service but independent news. The public have been encouraged to think, for example:

Nor are OnePoll surveys occasional items of ‘news’ that only come out once a week or once a month. In the six months from September 2010 to February 2011 there were 176 (as recorded on the OnePoll press release archive). This is over 29 each month, or almost one-a-day. Many of the write-ups of these surveys are being republished almost unchanged in the UK press (as shown by churnalism.com).

Clearly the responsibility for making this more transparent to the public does not fall entirely on SWNS or similar companies that conduct and write up such surveys. SWNS has, at least, engaged in dialogue on this and sought to make the process by which OnePoll surveys make it into the press clearer.

Much of the onus is on the mainstream media to:

  • Be as sceptical about OnePoll ‘news copy’ surveys and other surveys as they are about press releases from commercial organisations
  • Do some of their own journalism on these surveys so, even if they do publish them, they at least add some context and scepticism to the claims
  • Make it very clear to the public that these are ‘sponsored news’ stories by labelling them as such.

I hope the press will do this but I’m not holding my breath. Which is why churnalism.com needs to keep highlighting the use of OnePoll news copy and similar such copy from other organisations by the UK press.