Beware the spinfographic – the latest weapon in churnalism

The battle against churnalism rages on.

It’s a war kick-started by Nick Davies’ brilliant book Flat Earth News. In it, he detailed the worrying picture of newsrooms up and down the land aimlessly churning out copy based on press releases and wire copy.

Faithful reproduction of wire copy still goes on, there’s no denying that. Indeed, with every new publication brought to market, the churnalism problem grows worse.

Yet various unofficial and unscientific observations of the newsrooms I’ve worked in suggest that the blind churnalism of press releases is actually decreasing.

Yes, much of the news is still powered by press releases and PR reps getting, to use a friend’s posh ghetto phrase, “up in one’s grill”. But journalists are aware of it now. Journalists are aware that readers are aware, and that by churning out press releases, they are doing a disservice to the industry.

Not only that, but the momentum of Davies’ book has filtered up to the ruling classes and – I’m hope I’m not being naive here – I’d suggest that some publications that were getting deep into the unwavering horror that is constant churnalism have turned a corner.

But watch out. There’s a new menace in town – something I’m now calling the ‘spinfographic’*.

Yes, yes, well done, it’s a clever play on words from ‘infographic’, one of the buzziest buzz words in news right now.

Done well, infographics are beautiful. Get a good data set, apply some artistic flair and a skill for displaying complex information, and you’re left with a beautiful method of producing journalism.

Newspapers and websites are desperate to make their own, commissioning graphic artists on a daily basis.

Among all this excitement, the PR industry’s ears have pricked up. You see, press releases are great – but there’s a serious problem. Journalists can change them. They can take out the “best” – in a PR’s eyes – bits, replacing them with horrible things like balance and criticism**. Oh the horror.

Wouldn’t it be better, then, if there was some way a PR firm could get their “message” out exactly as intended?

Enter: the infographic. The spinfographic. Unlike a text piece, it’s very difficult to rearrange a pre-made, illustrated graphic. What’s more, they’re popular as hell. Even better: they make a site look very new media and clever.

So that’s why sites like Mashable fall arse-over-tit to get them online as quickly as humanly possible. Concerns about bias seem quickly brushed aside when infographics are on offer.

One example. An enormous infographic showing some detailed statistics about how people are flocking to the internet in search of jobs. Infographic made by, wait for it, CareerEnlightenment.com.

Another: The growing work from home phenomenon. Designed by a company that, funnily enough, offers solutions for managing a work-from-home workforce.

And, my personal favourite, an infographic wondering if, in our social media world, our email habits are changing. Yes, it concludes, we’re more mobile. But wait! Overall email use is absolutely on the increase, and you should, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, stop using email marketing as a way of reaching potential customers. The source of this information? Litmus. An email marketing firm.

See what I mean? To be fair, most of these infographics are indeed accompanied by a blurb which dips into why the data could have a few elements of bias.

But an infographic, by its very nature, is a self-contained piece of journalism. For a PR firm, it’s a dream. An untouched, share-friendly dream.

It must be stopped.

* Thanks to Martin Warne for coming up with ‘spinfographic’. All associated fame and wealth should be directed to him.

** True story: I was once hollered at down the phone by a well-known broadband company. Their complaint? “We don’t feel like your story shared the message of today”. Mugs.