But we do moan about them. Why? Because there are times when we think they’re not giving our clients a fair go.
Mainstream media, under-resourced, over-pressured and suffering an identity crisis in the modern world of real-time, ubiquitous news, seems to have forgotten about the standards it once used to espouse. Things like balance, fairness, and credibility, once the backbone of mainstream media, are increasingly to be found in the “citizen journalism” space occupied by bloggers and online commentators. The Grammar Nazis too have wound themselves into a lather, as they pore over and tweet each other the increasingly common Schoolboy Howlers they find in their daily newspapers and online media channels.
In the Good Old Days media outlets used to hire reporters who had time to learn about sector groups and agencies and take an interest in what they were up to, perhaps even what those organisations were thinking. Not any more, it seems. This is a luxury many newsrooms that have to feed online and print editions of their mastheads don’t seem to be able to afford.
They also used to hire skilled sub-editors to massage reporters’ stories so that they made sense, weren’t legally actionable, not published more than once in the same edition, and people’s names were spelled properly. People who knew the difference a capital letter could make in a story about helping one’s uncle jack off a horse.
Once there were opportunities for “off the record” chats with reporters who could be trusted, to give them advance notice of when something big was about to blow, or some insight into sensitive issues as background not to be published. Doing that these days can be extremely risky, especially from outlets whose first objective is a story –now! Or those whose reporters hired more for how they look on camera than any desire to hunt out news. In many cases organisations have such conversations at their peril.
I guess media were always in competition with each other and keen for a scoop. But deadlines longer than nanoseconds meant some sense and reason could prevail, usually amongst Wise Old Heads (a largely extinct species in modern newsrooms) and “scoops” were usually legitimate, rather than manufactured or superficial. Balanced reporting was different back then too.
Newsrooms used to understand concepts like “balance”. Back in the day balance involved the presentation of alternative views held by similarly qualified people. It did not involve the views of a qualified professional geneticist being offset by those of a child actor chained to a poultry farm’s front gate. Qualifications are rarely checked to see whether a “doctor” in the employ of an activist group is actually a doctor of medicine when they’re making comments regarding human health issues. Activist organisations understand this and use it to their advantage. Balance and truth are regrettable casualties.
A few years ago sports reporters would have seen right through the bullshit of Mr Khoder Nasser and his forays into “boxing”. Indeed it is unlikely that that sort of nonsense would have even appeared on a sports page, certainly with media outlets that aspired to be “credible”. While the boundaries between sport and entertainment are becoming increasingly blurred, Mr S B Williams is not a boxer nor are his bouts “boxing”. Mr Williams and his minders may be cashing in, but the sport of boxing is the loser.
Another recent front page story involved a mother allegedly evicted from an airliner because she had a child that could not be calmed prior to takeoff. At the end of this story of injustice and discrimination, it appears that the real reason the child and its mother were removed from the flight was because the child could not be secured with a seat belt. The pilot had no option but to remove the child from the plane. The aggrieved mother agreed with that reason. There are many similar examples of stories where the truth, grudgingly included at the end of a story, completely negates the sensationalist headline and tale of woe that preceded it.
This model of reporting has been followed for many years, usually on television. A corporate or a regulatory agency gets, at best, a six-second sound bite to present their view, in a 30 second or 1 minute piece about tragedy, human suffering and injustice. Even if they are to blame, that’s hardly a balanced piece. Even worse if they’re not to blame or indeed have done nothing wrong at all.
By behaving like this, mainstream media has allowed itself to become the voice of professional activists rather than an observer or analyst working in the best interests of their readers or viewers. At one extreme media have become the servants of professional activist bullies who can be relied on to take “offence” at any opinions they disagree with, regardless of context. In many cases there is much more to context and balance in a story then merely quoting what a lobbyist thinks, although that’s harder to do under deadline pressure. Redressing the damage caused by this imbalance is almost impossible, certainly with any form of equivalence to the originally published story.
Some newspaper owners believe that “balance” can be achieved over a series of editions. I disagree, as the damage is inevitably done with the publication of the first story. If the story in question was the front page or bulletin lead, any retraction or apology will never have the same prominence.
I think that one of the reasons for the rise of the “blogosphere” and online social networking discussion is because thinking people have found other ways of getting insight and analysis of what’s happening in the world. They’re increasingly unlikely to find that in mainstream media. This too contributes to the demise of media channels. Struggling to generate the revenues from advertising that they once did, newspapers around the world are struggling to make a dollar for their owners. Rather than looking to enhance the quality of their news, media owners are instead looking to reduce their costs. This leads to an erosion of standards, which contributes to an inevitable death spiral. Once reputable newspapers are in big financial trouble as their circulations plummet. Online editions aren’t replacing print versions, as advertisers see little value in web advertising, and readers like me just turn the damned ads off anyway. Bless you, Adblockplus!
So what advice do I most often give to clients about working with media people? Stay calm and proceed with caution. Only talk with the media you trust to give you a fair go. You don’t have to talk to them all. Don’t be afraid to talk directly with people through social media, rather than relying on mainstream media to present you honestly and fairly. Although in the heat of the moment it may not always look appealing, sticking with the honestly presented truth is the best approach.
It’s worth noting that a competent communication practitioner will always advise about the pointlessness of trying to polish a turd, whereas a Spin Doctor will advocate rolling the turd in glitter. Buyer beware.