There are some outstanding examples of responsible journalism, and reading Francis Fukuyama’s book on political decay reminds me how important quality journalism is to provide accountability in a democratic (or any) society. But two recent examples where I was somewhat involved leave me disheartened–to say nothing of the tragedy of one of my favorite journalists, Brian Williams.
In one example a large local TV station investigative team did an “expose” of a large housing development project. On their teasers and headline for the story, on air and in the online version, they claimed the development was a “cancer cluster.” Now that will get attention. It’s a big claim, and surely needs some substantiation to support it. There was none. They used a community gadfly, well known for her animosity to the local officials because they kicked her out of an office for non-payment of rent, and she uses her blog to attack community officials for any reason. In this case, she accused them of not protecting the public against this development. The only other substantiation offered was an interview with one neighbor (an elderly woman) who said it seemed there was a lot of serious illness in their neighborhood. That, this team considered, was sufficient evidence to tell an audience reaching into the millions that this development was a cancer cluster.
The other involved a screaming headline that was sure to draw attention for its claim about conspiracy. Yet, when you read the story or saw the content of the broadcast report, there was absolutely nothing in their story the justified the accusation. And of course, if someone were to complain, they would point to their story and said, well, we never said those things. And, someone else wrote the headline. Bull.
I’ve long said the media trades on fear, uncertainty, doubt and outrage–FUDO. This is what is used to attract eyes and therefore the price of advertising. Admittedly, these are two extreme examples but I could provide others, and anyone who has been in this business for a while could likely provide many more.
Where will this end? Just how low do viewer trust figures have to go before editors, producers, publishers and reporters understand they are killing the goose? I suspect it will take considerably more. And while I would hate to see it, probably some legislative action to reduce the bar set against defamation and libel.
The one major case, involving “pink slime” has beef producer BPI suing ABC News for $1.2 billion (yes, billion). Despite numerous attempts by ABC to have the case thrown out local and state supreme courts have denied those requests and the case moves forward. I suspect a settlement will occur, but personally I wish it would go to trial and would get much more media attention than it has already. I do not presume to judge the outcome, but holding Diane Sawyer and Jim Avila to account for their scaring the bejesus out people calling a safe product “pink slime” would have some benefit I believe.
In the meantime, unjustified and outrageous media stories are a major risk for many organizations and government agencies. It is so important to remember that these investigative teams must come up with these stories to keep their jobs and to keep their audiences. That means you must prepare to respond.
I can virtually guarantee you that the old method of responding to this which included these options doesn’t work:
- threaten to pull advertising
- threaten to sue
- ask nicely for a retraction or opportunity to respond with similar story
The only thing that I have seen work is a “Fact Check” response where you calmly, without emotion, point out the errors. Digital communications including your news site, your website, your social media presence, your email lists, all provide great opportunities to point out the problems. The issue, as I have discussed here even in the last post, is credibility. The more responsible ones will be concerned about their credibility.
Most, unfortunately, will be more concerned about ratings.