I think Dave Zurawick of the Baltimore Sun nailed it with this analysis of Brian Ross and ABC News’ mistake involving tying the Aurora, Colorado mass murdered with the Tea Party. Yes, the need for speed today is driving the increasing very serious mistakes made by major media outlets. David Westin, former head of ABC News highlighted this problem, beginning with the fiasco of the coverage of the Florida election of Bush-Gore in 2000. Things have gotten worse.
I have no doubt that every day there are numerous examples at the local to national level of errors of journalism because of this need for speed. But some are more serious than others. As my friend Dave Statter pointed out, the mistake by CNN in 2009 about a Coast Guard exercise on the Potomac that they reported as a terrorist attack. There is a cascading effect to this kind of story as Dave pointed out to me in an email:
In that case the wrong information took on new meaning when the FBI shut down Reagan National Airport. Many other news organizations said “Well if the FBI is doing that it must be true.”
Of course, more recently we had both CNN and FOX reporting in error the Supreme Court overturning Obamacare. I watched in fascination the night Bin Laden was killed as CNN repeatedly stumbled over themselves reporting every little snippet of information they got when they got it–much of which turned out to be false.
As Westin points out in Exit Interview, the mainstream media has paid and is paying a high price for this in loss of trust. And that is a pretty bad thing for our society. Is it any wonder that young people turn to Comedy Central for their news instead of mainstream media? (This CBS News report from 2009 shows that nearly as many under 30 get their news from Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live as from the major news sources–but, then again, can you trust what CBS tells us?)
But what is so compelling about the Zurawick analysis is not the hyper-competitiveness of the media in being first with the news, it is the clear disregard for the hard-earned reputations of the ones they cover. That is what irks me so much about so much news coverage. Look, I understand it. They are trying to survive and to survive they have to get eyes on the screen and to get eyes on the screen today they need two things: immediacy and emotion–fear, uncertainty, dread and outrage work good. So they pump up the emotional content of any story. And let the chips fall where they may.
I believe (many will disagree with me here) that BP’s much-discussed PR failures are much more a result of this (besides spilling millions of gallons of oil in the gulf in full view of the world without being able to stop it.) Even more clear is the billions in shareholder value lost and stellar reputation of Toyota lost for this careless disregard for reputation. There are many more examples I could cite, including the reputations of friends who found themselves attacked because by framing a story in a certain way it attracted audiences. A lot of good people are getting hurt all the time by this problem.
If this is true, what’s to be done?
I’d like to suggest three things.
1) Rumor management. If you are in the story, you already know that a lot of what will be said will be untrue. Not just on the Internet, but in the mainstream. I have a hard time understanding the reluctance of so many to take misreporting head on. “Fact Check” section should be on the front page of every major organization’s on-line press room and should be used aggressively to counter every significant error in the mainstream and online media sources.
2) Go direct. The one thing I keep shaking my head at is the continuing dominance of “media centricity” in crisis communication plans, in discussion boards on crisis communication, and in the training I see. Crisis communication is NOT about the media. Let me repeat, crisis communication is NOT about the media. It is about connecting directly with those relatively few people who matter most for your future, and working with everyone who has the capability and interest to amplify your message. Does that include the media? Yes, but only as one of many–and only with the understanding that their amplification is not for your benefit but is primarily there to serve their desperate need to attract eyes.
3) Support a new media future. I am a dyed-in-the-wool free enterprise capitalist. But, I have come to believe that the commercial, competitive model for trustworthy news is broken. I’m not totally convinced as I believe there are some news sources much more trustworthy than others. I am a fan of the Economist–even with their strong integration of fact and opinion and their disdain for some values important to me. And I consider NPR a more reliable source than others–despite my discomfort with taxpayer dollars being used for news. But I tend to believe that subscriber-based or broad-based non-profit funding may be a better model. I’m not convinced that I or anyone has the answer to the news of the future and it is a fascinating time to watch all the experimentation, but like health care, I’m very convinced that what we have is not what we need without necessarily knowing what will serve us better. I suspect I am not alone in that.
I’m reminded again of what David Westin said about the news we have. We get what we want. The highly unreliable and untrustworthy news media we have today is because that is what the news consumer apparently wants. That’s determined by ratings and the ability to sell ads. If we want something different, we have to act–first by choosing carefully what we use for news and second by actively supporting better alternatives, whatever those might be.