Churnalism is defined as a "news article based closely on a press release." This isn't a new practice, but I thought it would dovetail with the questions Tatge brings up in "The Internet: Will We Ever Be Able To Trust It?" (Plus, I love portmanteaus. Don't you?)
To view churnalism in action, visit churnalism.com and paste in some text. The engine will try to determine if the content from the article came from a press release. There are some pretty sketchy-looking examples in the "most viewed" tab. Sadly, this only works for a few dozen U.K. news sources. If someone has a U.S.-based churnalism site, post it here for us to play with.
A few years ago, I had a sit-down with a family friend and mentor of mine who made the leap from journalism to public relations. We went through a copy of the Cincinatti Enquirer and picked out the stories and information that were likely sourced from a press release. It was a surprising and illuminating exercise.
Personally, I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with using press releases as a source in news stories. I think churnalism happens when journalists plagiarize, don't confirm the information in the press release and don't use other sources -- or any combination thereof. As AWiche said in "Sorting out the mess," "Everyone has a personal agenda." This has always been true of sources, with or without the platform of the Internet. At least with press releases, the agenda is a little more transparent.
We discussed objectivity very briefly this week, and several people brought up the concept of transparency as a compliment to objectivity. I hope that as long as we're transparent, cautious and sparing in our sourcing of press releases, we can avoid the pitfalls of churnalism. I would like to think that the same strategies work for other sources and avoiding other unethical -isms.