The JC, ham and churnalism

The last thing trainee accountant Victor Kaufman expected when he boarded easyJet's flight from Tel Aviv was to be offered a now infamous bacon sandwich.

But there was an even bigger surprise in store when he put pen to paper to tell JC readers about it. What began as a simple letter to the editor went on to expose a cynical practice rife in the modern media, known as 'churnalism'; a form of journalism that relies on regurgitating -literally churning out - words already in print and publishing them elsewhere, often as original work.

Mr Kaufman's story was a model example, working its way effortlessly around the globe as it was printed and reprinted nearly 50 times in less than a week, without the benefit even of a phone call from another journalist to confirm, at the very least, that it was true.

The journey began when Mr Kaufman's letter arrived at the JC offices and a reporter called him to go through it line by line. easyJet were called, archives were trawled for background material and the company's own promotional material was checked. The story was printed in our February 18 edition.

The story was entirely kosher and you read it here first

Three days later, a reporter from the Sun rang the JC to ask for Mr Kaufman's phone number. The following day the story appeared under the names of two reporters and an 'exclusive' tag, an outrageous fib and, one of them later admitted, one regularly repeated by the paper when cribbing copy from smaller papers.

Apart from a brief call from one of those reporters, that was the last Mr Kaufmann heard from a journalist. Within hours, the story appeared on the Daily Mail website, quoting every word of the statement easyJet made to the JC but crediting it "as told to the mail online". It went on to attribute Mr Kaufmans's comments to the Sun. Rupert Murdoch's Fox News also took it up, followed the next day by CNN.

The Huffington Post then ran it, crediting both CNN and the Mail, followed by a host of media, including AOL, the UPI news agency, USA Today and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, all running virtually identical stories without a single new a fact and quoting the Mail, the JC, the Sun in random combination.

By the 24th, it had left the mainstream and was picked up by online publishers such as Aviation, complete with a graphic of a piglet inside a no entry sign. A car hire website quoted "media outlets" and the air travel news site Terminal U quoted Fox News.

Throughout, the facts remained the same. But so did the precise detail. Whether attributed or presented as new, they were exactly the words reported by the JC a week earlier.

It is common when reproducing a story like this for later versions to at least update it. Had, for example, easyJet changed its practices? Had Mr Kaufman been offered compensation? No one knew because no one asked. The story was merely passed as if by baggage handlers from publisher to publisher without comment. If there was a factual discrepancy, it would have been halfway round the world.

Fortunately, the story was entirely kosher but what this says about the modern media is anyone's guess. Either way, one truth remains ... You heard it here first.

Richard Burton is the JC's managing editor

    Last updated: 10:57am, March 11 2011