Are you reading journalism or plagiarism? A new online tool can help uncover bad writing

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Ever wonder if you’re reading original reporting or a regurgitated press release? In our age of digital journalism, things move quickly, and writers sometimes crib pieces of their articles straight from press releases. While it’s fine to occasionally quote press releases, over-reliance on corporate-created messages are a huge problem. The idea that it’s acceptable to simply ape what a company is trying to say about itself rather than researching it independently is a crutch too many writers rely on.

That’s why the Sunlight Foundation’s new tool, Churnalism, is so valuable. You get use it as a Web extension or as a website, and either copy-and-paste text or the URL of the text you want to check out. It uses an open-source resource called SuperFastMatch to analyze articles against a database that includes Fortune 500 companies, MarketWire, The White House, and a variety of other sources. 

Churnalism runs the article you’re interested in against a variety of publications, and shows where excerpts are lifted verbatim or where very closely related sentences pop up. 

Right now, it doesn’t check articles against other news articles – so if you suspect something has been lifted from one publication to another, it won’t be as helpful. Sunlight Foundation Web developer Kaitlin Devine talked to us about the next phase for the app, explaining, “So far we’ve steered clear of adding traditional news content to the search corpus because of cost and licensing restrictions on this content. Also, because a lot of online news is a re-syndication of wire stories, the matches may not be very useful to the user.” 

Fair enough, though it means you can’t use the service to expose plagiarizers like Jonah Lehrer, who recycled material from his own portfolio, or Jayson Blair, who took quotes from an AP article. (Blair also fabricated information, which is definitely too difficult to detect for Churnalism as it currently exists – that said, we’d love to see this team create a Web extension to check for misinformation)

We also asked Devine if Churnalism will appear on mobile devices, since right now it’s a desktop extension, not an app. She said the organization isn’t planning anything right now, “but we may reconsider if there is enough demand.” 

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