Tag Archives: loss of trust in media

Is “Breaking News” a lie?

Now this is intriguing. WDRB Fox affiliate in Louisville put out a promo for their news by very straightforwardly addressing the “deception” at the heart of much of today’s news coverage. I love it. Calling Breaking News a lie, an advertising ploy, a trick. The video says “breaking news is seldom actually breaking and often isn’t even news.” They further say they never use that term and believe “the relationship you have with your television station shouldn’t begin with a deception.”

Then it provides some guidance for viewers to help them evaluate news coverage by asking three questions: Is it important to me? Is it really breaking? Is it even news?

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While clearly this is “an advertising ploy” of their own–and I have no way of telling if their claims of doing real journalism are born out by the facts–I find this approach very encouraging. It shows at least some in the media are concerned about the huge erosion in trust in news coverage. It shows they are willing to directly confront the real issue–which is the length to which news competitors will go to attract an audience and the consequences of those errant strategies. But most important, this kind of message helps audiences take a step back and ask important questions about coverage.

That in my mind is the only real answer to the very serious problems with today’s mainstream journalism.


Willing suspension of disbelief–trying to understand today’s media environment

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.



Trust in news media continuing its slide–Gallup

The latest Gallup results continue the trend in declining confidence in our primary sources of news–newspapers and TV. Actually, I say primary and that is not so much the case any more as the switch to Internet as the primary source continues apace. Now, you would think wouldn’t you that with the growing presence of the Internet as a source of information, that trust in newspapers and TV would grow. After all, they have the professional journalists where few non-print or TV news sites do, they have their journalistic credibility and reputations at stake, and as everyone knows “you can’t believe what you read on the Internet.”

So, why is it that our trust in the media continues to decline?

Let me pose two reasons. One is the dying myth of objectivity. The second is rooted in the competitive nature of media.

Those of us in the Walter Cronkite era, who believed (however falsely) in the myth of media objectivity feel betrayed. The extremes on all positions so evident in the cacophony of our media environment make it clear that no one is objective, all have view points. We tend to favor those who support our own viewpoint and believe them to the most “fair and balanced” but since all media are lumped into one pile in an assessment of trust, we look at all the others as untrustworthy. So we now clearly understand they have an agenda–their opponents make that clear. But for the most part they pretend they don’t and with a few exceptions, declare they don’t. If someone tells you they have important information but you know they have an agenda that supersedes them telling you the truth, will you trust them? It’s why I think in many ways we trust Internet content more. One value that has been clearly established is to reveal upfront our economic ties, conflicts, and agendas. If we don’t, holy cow, watch out. And that is a good thing. The mainstream media, again with some exceptions, clings to the myth of objectivity and trust is lost.

The other, is the competitive environment. I suggest that the competitive environment is their primary agenda. Sell ads or die. Simple as that. What do they need to do to sell ads. Beat the million other guys out there trying to do the same thing. Every day. How? By getting attention. How? By playing on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Wouldn’t it be great to have a warning message on all newspapers that says, “Warning–our primary purpose is to get you to read this so our advertisers will be happy. And we will do just about anything we can do get you to read it.”

Speaking of media warning labels, it’s not an original idea. Here’s a few other warning labels the media might consider.

So, how does the competitive pressure play out in actual news reports. I could take a hundred stories and lay them out, but why should I when the Onion did a perfect job of parodying today’s typical coverage.

Let’s look at a few features:

– word choice–greatest environment disaster, dangerous crude oil, black toxic petroleum, unforetold damage.

-bring in the expert — they got to have someone to quote. Credentials don’t matter as much as if the words they use (easily manipulated by a good reporter) fits the flow, gist and angle of the story. I couldn’t believe all the stories in the spill featuring “experts” who were miffed because they weren’t being taken seriously by BP.

– urgency — “time is of the essence” says the expert

— government calls for an investigation — of course, what else would they do? Need to start drafting legislation right now

–appalled elected official — what elected rep isn’t looking for an opportunity to appear in some news story where they can be the white knight riding to the public’s rescue. “Shocked and horrified.”  Hmm, sounds like Rep. Markey.

— citizen reaction — now don’t expect here some citizen to say “well I think the news reports are overblown.” No doubt they got that reaction, but that won’t get into the story.

– bad corporations — of course, there has to be a villain and so there is.

Well, of course the Onion story is a spoof, but if you compare their spoof with the stories about almost any major event like the spill, you will see definite patterns emerge. And the Onion pretty well nailed it.

Why don’t we trust the media? Because we want something they can’t seem to give us–and still survive. Wish I had an answer.