Good News, Bad News, Ugly News of the World

It’s a little like watching a massive storm brew, bluster and then explode in front of you. The revelations of private investigators for a major UK newspaper illegally hacking into all kinds of mobile phone voice mails is the explosion that is only part of the massive storm brewing in global media.

I was listening to BBC on satellite radio the other day talking about the scandal that has brought down a 168 year-old newspaper. The BBC reporters interviewed a number of people on the street. What they said quite consistently was, this isn’t shocking, we kind of expect this kind of behavior from journalists, we don’t believe a thing they say anyway. This attitude is actually quite strongly reflected in the trust measures of the last few years, at least some of them which show that the mainstream media rank as the lowest of all industries in public trust. Lower than lawyers, lower even than Big Oil.

The real problem I have, however, is the gap between what people believe and what they say they believe. People don’t believe what the media says when one of two things happens: when they know facts to the contrary and when what the media says fails to correspond with existing prejudices. If they have no inside or other knowledge of the facts and what the media says is consistent with their viewpoint about the subject, we (we are all media consumers) tend to accept quite willingly what is presented.

That really struck me during the Gulf Spill. I saw the egregious deceptive media reporting first hand, the enormous gap between the reality of what was happening with the benefit of some inside knowledge and the bulk of media reports. Only afterwards did the exaggerations, agendas and deceptiveness of these reports become more obvious to the astute observer. But, the Pew Research center reported in the middle of all the reporting that the public was overall pretty satisfied with how the media was covering the story. What?!? I couldn’t believe it. How could the public be so blind? How could they think the media reports were accurate when much better information was being presented regularly by Admiral Allen’s briefings and by BP? The reason for this credulousness goes back to my two conditions: not having solid information to counter the media’s assertions and 2) fitting in with pre-established viewpoints. If the media said BP was being dishonest, deceptive, manipulating, stingy, greedy, profit-hungry and all the rest, on what basis would the public question that when it already fit with their notions not only of BP but of every other Big Oil company.

As any crisisblogger regular reader will know, I have strong feelings about today’s media environment and how the pressure they are under for ratings creates such risk for the big and powerful and profitable. (See my rant on Rachel Maddow and ExxonMobil). I do not blame them because they are fighting for their lives and like smart business people of all time and eras, they are giving the people what they want. It’s the people that I have a problem with, because they seem so blind to what the competitive environment is doing to the news business.

That’s why I have to admit to some sort of grim satisfaction with the demise of News of the World. Not only because I think tabloid journalism is one of the worst expressions of our culture but because this hopefully will cause even greater scrutiny among news consumers about how their news is gathered. I know there are a great many honest, ethical, hard working and upstanding journalists and they need to be excepted from this broad categorization. But many of them are caught in a system that is increasingly self-destructive. At some point you have to say I can no longer participate in this. Many have, and I suspect many more will.

What I dread most about this is the gut-reaction of the media and their political-opportunist cohorts who think whenever a problem surfaces the government must solve it. I agree with this blogpost by former TV anchor Larry Kane, who said “The part that really scares the hell out of me in this news scandal are the calls for investigation, not the criminal investigations that are underway, but the official call for panels and committees to “investigate” the media and how it operates. There is a stark difference between criminal indictments for alleged criminal activity and a Prime Minister asking for the news media to be publicly investigated.”

I was also attracted to this article on gigaom that said that what happened with News of the World just might be a good thing. I think he is right, not so much because he thinks it will lead to innovation and a radical rethinking of the news business. I think he is right because it will significantly deepen the public’s already considerable skepticism about the news and hopefully make them more aware of what the current hyper-competitive environment is doing to us.

It’s not the government who needs to investigate this situation and take action to protect the public. It’s the news consumer who needs to investigate and take action to protect themselves by carefully and intelligently choosing their news sources.