As I watched the news coverage of the Japan disaster, particularly cable–CNN and FOX, I saw the now very familiar patterns arise. From my experience on being on the inside of major events such as the gulf spill, I know that very little of what is reported can be believed. The media’s job today, as an Economist columnist so economically stated it, is to inflame, not inform. Get audiences or die. Doesn’t matter what is sacrificed to do that–others’ reputations, their own credibility. Pew reports that trust in media is at a two decade low.
I’ve commented here before that there is only one industry with lower trust rating than the oil industry–the media. Congress, not an industry, is below that.
A friend who is not involved in PR or communications commented the other day that looking at the media coverage of Japan, they really don’t know what to believe. And someone deeply involved in the BP spill told me just recently that seeing the media coverage of that event and how little was accurate leads him to conclude that what American broadcast media is saying about Japan simply can’t be believed.
Yet, there is no question of the media’s role in forming public opinion. Despite the widespread use of a variety of channels and voices on the Internet, the mainstream media are still the most potent force in forming public opinion. That’s what I am struggling with. We know the media can’t be believed or trusted in general. Yet, we still do. Drawing on my drama background I see in this a kind of willing suspension of disbelief.
In theatre, or film, this willing suspension is for a good reason. We must accept the conventions of the big flat screen in a dark room in front of us with the full knowledge that the scene has been carefully planned and filmed. We accept the conventions of the proscenium arch and the characters on stage projecting their lines so we can here, despite the portrayal of an intimate conversation. We accept that, because if we can’t accept it, we can’t enter into the story and be entertained.
Why do we so willingly suspend our disbelief in the media? I realize that many do not. Many ( a decreasing number as Pew shows) continue to trust the media as a reliable source of information–except when they are the subject of the story. But any other story, they will accept at face value. I suppose the willingness to suspend disbelief is related to our desire to be entertained. Drama lives on characters in dire circumstances, where good battles evil in life or death struggles. We are entertained by the scariest of movies and stories where our adrenalin levels are raised and brain chemicals set to red alert. Jack Fuller argues that in an information saturated age, the emotional stimulus of entertainment is even more necessary–and the news provides it, without having to pay $20 for a movie ticket. I suppose it does all come down to entertainment. Neil Postman was more right than he could have imagined when he said we were amusing ourselves to death.
The reason for trying to come to grips with this, of course, is what this phenomenon of entertainment posing as news means to us in crisis communication. I am more and more advocating the “you are the broadcaster” strategy in crisis communications. Understand that we are now in a “post media world” in which anyone and everyone can be a broadcaster–that is produce and distribute relevant information to potentially vast audiences. The Internet and digital communication tools make that possible. But as military tactics didn’t change as fast as technology and lines of soldiers side by side marched to their death against machine guns and artillery, so our strategies and practices of crisis communication are not keeping up with technology change.
But, going direct to audiences through all the means available does not mean that the media will have no influence. Certainly, their influence will be affected and even limited by alternative credible sources of information. A point lost on the Japanese government. But, even with direct communication, the media will continue to inflame vs. inform, generally at the expense of those in the middle of a crisis. That reality requires a different approach to “media management” than we are currently seeing.
More thoughts on that later.