We live in an age of information, it is said again and again. But that doesn't mean we live in an age of good information, as last week seemed intent on bearing out. In fact, quite the opposite. Countless times each day, we have to weigh the credibility of a piece of information, and decide whether to put our faith in it.
It's not really feasible for each of us to track each piece of information to its source (nor would it be efficient), so, instead, we use clues -- who wrote this, where is this published, does this square with other information we know. But the trouble is that these clues aren't perfect indicators, at least in part because even credible publications and professional journalists sometimes regurgitate information without giving it a careful vetting, a process often referred to as churnalism (just as gross as it sounds).
Today, the Sunlight Foundation has unveiled a tool that will help us all with this work. "The tool is, essentially, an open-source plagiarism detection engine," web developer Kaitlin Devine explained to me. It will scan any text (a news article, e.g.) and compare it with a corpus of press releases and Wikipedia entries. If it finds similar language, you'll get a notification of a detected "churn" and you'll be able to take a look at the two sources side by side. You can also use it to check Wikipedia entries for information that may have come from corporate press releases. The tool is based on a similar project released in the United Kingdom two years ago, which the Sunlight Foundation supported with a grant to make it open source. Churnalism will be available both on the website and as a browser extension. Its database of press releases includes those from EurekaAlert! in addition to PR Newswire, PR News Web, Fortune 500 companies, and government sources.