Thursday, November 24, 2011

Churnalism: Churning 'Frack Off'

In several comments on my previous piece of work on churnalism I read at Biased BBC, the activist group 'Frack Off' were mentioned and questions were asked whether they had any detectable churn in the media as online links were often found to them at the BBC and the Guardian sites by Biased BBC readers.

I decided to have a look.

The group is very new and they have only released four official press releases. This meant I could work fast with this data as I wouldn't need to write specialised spiders for gathering, analysing or submitting the data as it could be done manually with such a small data set.

Again I find myself being surprised by the results:

A reminder on the scoring criteria:

>=100 is classified as "detectable" churn. I usually discard these results and they will always be discarded for comparing one set of data to another (e.g. this analysis to the previous environment agency analysis), however it still yields a rich seam of data and as this data set is so small compared to the previous one I decided to take some time to look into some of these.
>=500 is classified as "significant" churn.
>=1000 is classified as "major" churn - in these cases the articles simply could not have been written without cutting and pasting the bulk of its material from the press release.


- Out of four press releases, three have generated a total of 13 articles with detectable churn according to my criteria (score of >= 100 from the Churnalism engine). 14 were originally found but I removed one Guardian article as it was detected twice (probably because of the similar screeds issued by 'Frack Off' in their press releases).

- Out of those, 5 were significant churn (score of >= 500) - and as they were only a handful I have entered them manually into the Churnalism database so you can see the side by side comparisons yourself. 2 were from the Guardian, 1 from the Mirror, 1 from the Times and 1 from the Daily Mail.

- Several of the remaining 8 articles with detectable churn come very close to the >= 500 criterion (details below) and indeed in a couple of cases the Churnalism engine considers them to be significant enough to display when manually input (an API input by contrast gives an exact score; the churnalism seems to have a less forgiving standard than myself and will display many articles with a score between 400-500 as significant).

Further comments:

Now, even being generous to the media organisations and 'Frack Off', this means 50% of their press releases are being significantly churned - and primarily by the Guardian and the Mirror (one of the Mirror's contributions came close to a "major" ( >= 1000) piece of churn with a score of 870. I suspect that were I less forgiving with my methodology, removing extraneous elements in the initial press release (links, contact information etc) and didn't have to remove some characters to ease processing (e.g. single quotes), this may well have scored as 'major churn'. You can eyeball it yourself in any case here

I say that 50% assessment is 'being generous' to 'Frack Off' also because it includes a press release they issued yesterday so it will not have had time to percolate through the media yet. If the press release yesterday results in any significant churn (which I will check again in a week or two), that percentage will climb to 75%.

Further details on the data for each press release:

26th October 2011 press release: - submitting it to the API yielded 3 detectable chases of churn and one borderline (score 96), so I looked at them in more detail. One of these articles is from the Guardian and already highlighted by the Churnalism engine as containing significant churn from one of the other FO press releases. Two are Telegraph articles, one by Louise Gray - both name check the activist group. The other is a Times article and unfortunately I can't verify anything beyond the paywall.

2nd November 2011 press release - 7 detectable cases of churn - 4 were "significant" churn and a further 2 came very close to being considered "significant" by my scoring criteria - one from the Independent  (score: 436) and one from the Guardian (score: 448). Notice how the Independent article also cites: Chris Huhne, the WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Cuadrilla Resources - the company responsible for the Fracking discussed at the heart of the article get one response of similar length to the others, along with a neutral response from the shadow energy secretary, Tom Greatrex.Cuadrilla don't get a single response in the Guardian article and in mentioning the independent report commissioned by Cuadrilla fails to mention that the report concluded that another earthquake incident was unlikely.

The Churnalism engine considers one of the Guardian articles significant that doesn't hit my threshold (500) - it scores 448, but the manual search on also yields an entry that the engine considers significant, at the same time, the Daily Mail entry with a score of 521 isn't listed on the manual search so this balances out.

See visual breakdowns of significant / detectable churn for this press release here.

3rd November 2011 press release - four detectable cases of churn, one from the Guardian classifies as "significant".

See visual breakdowns of significant / detectable churn for this press release here.

23rd November 2011 press release - no detectable churn via either manual entry to or to the more sensitive API system. This could well change however as it was only yesterday this PR was issued.

Final comments:

I find these results very concerning. A small single-issue activist group that has only existed for a matter of months should not be generating such a significant amount of churn with just four press releases. The Guardian and the Mirror in particular appear to be giving the group a free ride (though also see the commentary above on one of the higher scoring Independent articles). The Environment Agency at least has some kind of mandate and does carry out a wide variety of tasks - to that extent it's no surprise some of its press releases are churned (though this is no excuse for the journalists concerned, or indeed for any EA employees who are aware of and have no issue with any kind of symbiotic relationship here).

This is extremely dangerous, especially for such an important issue and shows how groups like 'Frack Off' can be so polarising. On a personal level I do believe there are legitimate environmental concerns regarding Shale Gas. Unlike 'Frack Off' however I consider these issues surmountable. They make clear from their website that they want this to be a polarising issue regardless of the facts. They primarily cite Gasland - a "documentary" itself which is making rational discussion of the issue of Fracking all but impossible. It is primarily a series of anecdotes that are themselves seriously problematic as evidence. 'Frack Off' et al should be citing careful and replicable research such as this for discussion. Why don't they? And moreover why doesn't the media, who are apparently falling over themselves to repeat 'Frack Off' claims without doing the very research most of us expect of them. My guess is that the research isn't nearly alarmist enough for them and has plenty of caveats that prevent them from easily reporting it as such.

And whilst I am sure many 'Frack Off' adherents are, as we speak, screaming that the unfolding "Climategate 2" saga is all about emails "being taken out of context", they themselves have a website about Fracking that not only cites factually incorrect and misleading material but - crucially - misses the all important context that Shale Gas could be an enormous energy (not to mention political) game changer. Meanwhile all of the companies involved in prospecting and mining are listed as "bad guys". Its utterly juvenile.

But what is truth to people like this? Or indeed to the mass media in whom we trust its flame is continually nurtured, not murdered as it seems to be?

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