Would major media actually lie just to juice a story?

Trust in the mainstream media continues to decline but recent major crisis events show that it is not learning from the mistrust it has earned. Instead, more and more alarming examples of how intentionally dishonest major media outlets can be in their desperate search for eyes on the screen.

After I blogged about Toyota and the government investigation that exonerated them, I received a very interesting email from a reporter from Michigan. Speaking about the July Enbridge oil spill in Michigan she said:

I caught CBS News lying to Enbridge’s PIO about the contents of a letter that had been sent to the CEO at the company’s headquarters in Canada, but not yet received.  I caught our Congressman (who had been doing some serious grandstanding) who didn’t do his homework on an MSDS which contained impossible data.  Just a couple of days ago, I caught a local online media outlet publishing a story with a sensational headline that was backed by nothing in the article except an unattributed statement, which stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy and was seized on environmental groups in Canada as being true.

Catching CBS lying is a serious accusation. On her blog she provides the relevant details. But there is more. She tells about the brouhaha over an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). Reporters and politicians used an obviously incorrect data sheet to scare the bejesus out of the public saying it called for mandatory evacuation.

She is also provided a very cogent assessment of the problem and the high cost that is paid:

You [the media] are still objective if you produce horribly biased and inaccurate stories as long as they are trashing whomever has been decreed the “bad guy” (big/medium/small/related to oil = fair game) and it’s okay to present the unsubstantiated stories of “victims” as facts.  It doesn’t matter if you destroy the reputation of a good company with a good safety record in the process, as long as they are responsible for a bad thing, they are fair game.  I also learned that all it takes is for one data point to change, and the whole story changes.

That is Enbridge. What about Toyota? I wrote here in my last post suggesting that after the federal investigation exonerated Toyota’s electronics from the acceleration issues, that the media and Sec. LaHood owed Toyota an apology. Yeah, OK, I’ve seen pigs fly over recently, too. But I wasn’t the only one with that reaction.

Bloomberg Business Week journalist Ed Wallace brings this message home, focusing once again on CBS News. The federal findings exonerating Toyota were clearly a huge disappointment to the news media (let alone the plaintiff’s attorneys who sniffed off the results with an attitude that said: federal government, who are they? what do they know?). CBS was not willing to let the story just die, so they trotted out one of the sensational stories that kicked the crisis off, replaying Mark Saylor’s frantic 911 call. But Sandra Hughes, the CBS reporter, neglected to say that the Saylor case had been resolved and it was due to a faulty floor mat installation. This is extreme dishonesty.

Crisis communication expert James Donnelly provides even more examples of how the media completely distorted the Toyota story, and like me, believes some very loud apologies are in order.

I want to know, why does our society permit a system that for the pursuit of profit, one industry can cost another industry billions without penalty?

I will not go into the BP examples–that would take a book in itself. Other than to say that CBS was one of the better reporters of the story according to public information officers working the spill that I talked to. CNN brought coverage to a new low in my mind, and one of the most important reasons was Anderson Cooper’s delight in Billy Nungesser, James Carville plus a few other hotheads who would say the most outrageous things about BP and the responders.

I do think it is important for us as citizens who care about our freedom, democracy and institutions that we start paying more attention to the abuse that is happening. I am preparing a post on an outstanding book I recently read on this topic called “What is Happening to News.” I’ll be providing some relevant quotations from this book by Jack Fuller, former publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

We have lost something very important in this country–real journalism. Yes, there are stellar examples of it still existing. But too much of what parades as real journalism is simply audience seeking at desperation levels–and as we are seeing more and more, with blatant disregard for the truth. We must fight this for the sake of our future, but as crisis communicators, we must understand this situation and drastically decrease our reliance on the mainstream media to communicate key messages.

5 thoughts on “Would major media actually lie just to juice a story?”

  1. As a former reporter now involved in emergency management and crisis communications, I find this post profoundly disturbing. Not surprising but troubling just the same.

    Journalism standards have gone down … competition between giant conglomerates, legacy media’s rising challenge from social media and scare resources in newsrooms, are some of the factors behind this decline.

    All of this to say that crisis communicators should consider main media outlets as just one of the many tools at their disposal and put more and more emphasis on social media as a direct link to audiences … whereas just a few years back, traditional media (print and broadcast) would have been the first priority … those days are gone … and I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing !

  2. This isn’t really new. I had my first rude awakening about not trusting major media back in the ’70s. During the Three Mile Island crisis, television reporters were alarming people by warning of possible outcomes that were not, in fact, physically possible.

    You hear people complain about inaccuracies in reporting when they know about the topic being reported. But these same people will trust the media on topics they are unfamiliar with. Go figure.

    Fortunately, today we have a way to publicize these problems and hold the media accountable.

  3. Great post and interesting comments. The advent of the concentration of MSM and 24/7/365 tv coverage and other developments such as Web 2.0 have just not been adquately researched and given coverage. That is why this blog is so important. I begged James Lee Witt, Director of FEMA and his Public Affairs Chief Morris Goodman multiple times to hold a series of national and regional conferences on Emergency Public Information. Goodman was a genius at Emergency Public Infomation but unable to discipline himself to write up his thoughts and points of view. FEMA is all about giving out money and hopefully accurate Emergency Public Information, see for example the National Response Framework and ESF 6, but even though Craig Fugate is trying manfully to incorporate social media he is doing it largely as a lone ranger. Bureacracies are never about individual genius although some have some of those also. It is the collective.

    Amazing to me how even the FEMA org charts immediately indicate that Emergency Public Information is a stepchild. You can see those organization charts over last three decades on my blog VACATION LANE BLOG on the home page by clicking on FEMA History Docs and then again on FEMA references, linking to a page maintain by FAS for me to capture some otherwise missiong FEMA history. So thanks again for this terrific post Gerald and yes basic honest has to be there in order to have listeners believe in the underlying ethics and reliability of their Emergency Public Information. What you might have mentioned is how long it takes the Private Sector facing crisis to understand that further delay in making available accurate information is NOT to their benefit in the short or long run.

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