Media fear-mongering–the Onion’s take

The Onion is well known for its irreverent and sarcastic take on today’s issues–and in this hilarious spoof of a news report they highlight the fear mongering of media reporting along with the “irrational fear” exhibited by news viewers. (Thanks again, Patrice!)

As with most of the Onion’s “reports” this contains a painful element of truth. The competition for eyes on the screen (either computer, mobile device or TV) is intense and to win that competitive battle editors and producers have learned that nothing attracts like fear, uncertainty and dread. So in an event, like a minor train accident, the question that naturally occurs to those concerned about attracting an audience is how can I use this story to heighten public interest. The main concern of course would be, is anyone I know involved in this? Hence, “millions feared dead.” Of course, it is overdrawn, but the fundamental truth remains.

I continue to marvel at commentary about reputation crises that do not take into account this phenomenon. This season I’ve read many marketing pieces from crisis consultants saying in effect: we can help protect you against the stupid mistakes that BP, Toyota, Bank of America, Lowes and others have made. Yes, there are some examples of PR mis-steps. But the reality is that the reputation challenges faced by organizations, including government agencies and elected officials or those seeking office, are a direct result of the way the media presents these stories.

The contrast between how US media treated the Fukushima disaster vs. how mainstream Japanese media treated it is telling. Unfortunately, as I discuss on Crisis Comm, neither approach did much for the credibility of the media. The natural and understandable tendency of media in a fiercely competitive business is to heighten fear, emotional levels and uncertainty. Without understanding and accepting that reality, it is hard for me to see how organizations can prepare appropriately to respond to crises.