Should you trust that report? Open-source tool can help

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The Web has put a wealth of good information within closer reach than ever before—but as any Internet user knows, it’s done the same for all the heaps of misinformation out there.

Aiming to help news consumers distinguish legitimate original content from repurposed or paid content, the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation on Tuesday launched “Churnalism,” an open-source Web tool and browser extension designed to identify reports that are essentially repackaged press releases or Wikipedia articles.

“Ever wonder if the news story you’re reading is a product of real journalism or just a spin off of another story posted elsewhere?” explains the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on using technology to make government transparent and accountable. “Discover the journalism you can trust and what you should question.”

An open-source search engine

Churnalism is actually based on a UK site by the same name that was the Media Standards Trust created using open-source search-engine technology called SuperFastMatch.

Now the Sunlight Foundation has partnered with the Media Standards Trust to adapt the site for a U.S. audience and to build Web browser extensions that possess similar functionality.

To use Churnalism online, simply enter text or a URL on the Churnalism homepage. Churnalism then compares that entry against a large body of press releases from sites including PRNewsWire, PR NewsWeb, MarketWire, EurekaAlert, Congressional Leadership, and The White House, as well as various trade organizations, Fortune 500 companies, and nonprofit research institutes and think tanks.

To filter out irrelevant matches, such as expanded organizational names (the United States House of Representatives is the example the foundation gives) or standard boilerplate copy, Churnalism uses a relevancy ranking based on total character overlap and on density of overlap.

Sunlight Foundation
When it finds a match, the Churnalism tool highlights the duplicated content.

The Churnalism browser extensions, meanwhile, run in the background and check the news stories you’re reading against files in the Churnalism database. If something matches, a notification pops up allowing you to view the match.

Free browser extensions

Extensions are now available as free downloads for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Source code for the project is available on GitHub. The project’s corpus of press releases will soon be available as a standalone API, the foundation says.

I tried out the Web tool on a few current news stories from the tech and mainstream presses, including one of my own, but Churnalism didn’t find any matches. That, of course, is a good thing. Listed on the site, however, are several examples where the tool uncovered evidence of “churnalism.”

Ready to try it out for yourself? The video below offers a tutorial on using the Churnalism tool.

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