Tag Archives: media abuse

Broadcast journalism appears to be accelerating its death spiral

There are some outstanding examples of responsible journalism, and reading Francis Fukuyama’s book on political decay reminds me how important quality journalism is to provide accountability in a democratic (or any) society. But two recent examples where I was somewhat involved leave me disheartened–to say nothing of the tragedy of one of my favorite journalists, Brian Williams.

In one example a large local TV station investigative team did an “expose” of a large housing development project. On their teasers and headline for the story, on air and in the online version, they claimed the development was a “cancer cluster.” Now that will get attention. It’s a big claim, and surely needs some substantiation to support it. There was none. They used a community gadfly, well known for her animosity to the local officials because they kicked her out of an office for non-payment of rent, and she uses her blog to attack community officials for any reason. In this case, she accused them of not protecting the public against this development. The only other substantiation offered was an interview with one neighbor (an elderly woman) who said it seemed there was a lot of serious illness in their neighborhood. That, this team considered, was sufficient evidence to tell an audience reaching into the millions that this development was a cancer cluster.

The other involved a screaming headline that was sure to draw attention for its claim about conspiracy. Yet, when you read the story or saw the content of the broadcast report, there was absolutely nothing in their story the justified the accusation. And of course, if someone were to complain, they would point to their story and said, well, we never said those things. And, someone else wrote the headline. Bull.

I’ve long said the media trades on fear, uncertainty, doubt and outrage–FUDO. This is what is used to attract eyes and therefore the price of advertising. Admittedly, these are two extreme examples but I could provide others, and anyone who has been in this business for a while could likely provide many more.

Where will this end? Just how low do viewer trust figures have to go before editors, producers, publishers and reporters understand they are killing the goose? I suspect it will take considerably more. And while I would hate to see it, probably some legislative action to reduce the bar set against defamation and libel.

The one major case, involving “pink slime” has beef producer BPI suing ABC News for $1.2 billion (yes, billion). Despite numerous attempts by ABC to have the case thrown out local and state supreme courts have denied those requests and the case moves forward. I suspect a settlement will occur, but personally I wish it would go to trial and would get much more media attention than it has already. I do not presume to judge the outcome, but holding Diane Sawyer and Jim Avila to account for their scaring the bejesus out people calling a safe product “pink slime” would have some benefit I believe.

In the meantime, unjustified and outrageous media stories are a major risk for many organizations and government agencies. It is so important to remember that these investigative teams must come up with these stories to keep their jobs and to keep their audiences. That means you must prepare to respond.

I can virtually guarantee you that the old method of responding to this which included these options doesn’t work:

– threaten to pull advertising
– threaten to sue
– ask nicely for a retraction or opportunity to respond with similar story

The only thing that I have seen work is a “Fact Check” response where you calmly, without emotion, point out the errors. Digital communications including your news site, your website, your social media presence, your email lists, all provide great opportunities to point out the problems. The issue, as I have discussed here even in the last post, is credibility. The more responsible ones will be concerned about their credibility.

Most, unfortunately, will be more concerned about ratings.

Here's why the media's investigative reports make me angry

Certainly a lot of investigative reports are valuable, perform an important service. But far too often they are far more harmful than helpful. The harmful part is driven by the media’s need to entertain, which they do by creating a white hat/black hat story regardless of the truth.

Like many farms, Randy Adkin’s blueberry farm uses migrant workers which are housed in camps–about 250 of them. Farm labor was plentiful this year and Adkins turned away over 1000 adults looking for work. Normally the children of the migrant families attend a state-supported day care, but Michigan’s economy was in the tank so no day care and no summer school program for the kids. So the migrant families had to supply their own daycare and some brought their kids to the field with them. It is not a practice Adkins supported, but much to his regret, he did not do enough to stop it.

I just want to mention a side note here. I grew up in berry picking area and every summer since I was about five years old I would go and pick berries. First with my mom, then when about nine or ten, on my own with my brothers. We would ride our bikes, pick berries, eat a whole lot and earn a little money for candy, school supplies, etc. It was where most of us around here learned what work was all about. But some enlightened do-gooders decided that child labor was a throw back to bad old days of the industrial revolution and now it is illegal for anyone under 12 to work. Sure, there is some value in that, but my gosh don’t we go overboard.

Back to the Adkin’s farm. Some college kids said they were doing a documentary on how blueberry farms work and shot video of the children in the fields working alongside their parent. They turned it over to authorities and the media. The Department of Labor stepped in and levied fines. ABC News ran a big story with Chrlie Gibson and Brian Ross who were suitably shocked and dismayed at the shameful exploitation of child labor by this berry farmer.

But of course, that is not enough. The big image-conscious companies who marketed the blueberries, Meijer, Kroger and Walmart all suspended business with the farm. As the editor of Food Grower News points out, Walmart’s righteous indignation was especially galling since they have become the behemoth they are largely on child labor in China.

As a result, every farmer in the nation was scurrying to make certain that not a single child any where near age 12 was to be found any where near their fields. Is that a good thing? Certainly not for the strapped migrant families. Beyond that I’ll let you be the judge. The Department of Labor of course looks good because they did their enforcement thing. The big companies protected their image because they told the world they won’t stand for this kind of brutal exploitation of child labor. ABC can feel quite good because it was definitely a white hat black hat story that played well to the credulous masses.

The sad thing is the truth escaped the agendas of all those involved. And that is something that every American ought to care deeply about.

Child welfare officials in Texas in trouble over sect seizure

I’m no advocate of wild and crazy polygamist sects–but in my mind they are less danger to our society and future than hyper-aggressive, media-driven government officials who get carried away in trying to enforce the current view of moral standards. The Texas polygamist sect controversy has bothered me considerably. Long before the news came out about an Appeals Court overturning the seizure I worried that this was one more sad example of government officials responding more to media frenzy than reality.

Now, I recognize that it is possible that poor innocent children were being horribly abused–in that case I am grateful for laws and officials enforcing those laws to protect the innocent. But it could also be that the media in their increasingly desperate quest for ratings and ad sales have grossly exaggerated the danger and the risk to the children. But because it plays all over (incessantly, nauseatingly) on the likes of Greta Van Susteren, MSNBC, CNN Headline News–officials feel they must respond or the outrage created by the hyped up media coverage will rebound on them.

There is a completely predictable pattern here which I talked about in Now Is Too Late: an event happens in which people may or may not be at risk, the media covers it with the primary focus being on getting ratings, the officials interpret the exaggeration as public outcry and respond, the response is all out of proportion to the actual risk, we have new laws and regulations that further restrict our lives and cause additional unneeded costs–all because the media needs ratings. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I’m hoping bloggers can help–and here’s one blogger that is trying.