Fair and balanced reporting means telling both sides of a story. However, telling both sides of the story can allow one side to traffic in misinformation and get equal or better coverage than a truth-teller.
One of the dirty little secrets in today's public affairs world is that too often the misinformation is intentional. Misinformation doesn't have to be a big lie, just enough indirection to mislead or distort the facts.
Contentious issues get the adrenalin going, which can lead spokesmen to exaggerate, hype certain facts or even make false claims to win support. This misinformation gets reported without analysis or fact-checking as the "other side of the story," With no barriers on what to say or how to say it, misinformation can be cast in bombastic visual events, which have the habit of sticking in the public's mind more so than good old-fashioned facts.
Even diligent readers are left to sift through the two sides, without any objective guide to discern facts from convenient fictions.
This phenomenon has become a commonplace dimension of public debates. and, as such, has become a nightmare for issue managers who have a job description that requires sticking to the facts.
Admittedly, some misinformation is simply sloppy fact-gathering. Someone misinterpreted data or relied on a flawed source. Other times, misinformation is the heart of a strategy – to advance an agenda or block a project. Such as questionable intelligence data about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or repeated references to a propane export terminal's "blast zone."
Blatant distortions incite rage and social media rants. They can be the perfect fuses for protests, which in turn earn more news coverage, creating an impression of broad opposition.
Sound familiar? It should because misinformation is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in civic discourse. It's okay to fudge the truth, advocates reassure themselves, because ends justify the means. They have taken Mark Twain's sly comment as a license to lie – "get your facts first, then distort them all you please."
The hyperventilation of public debates tends to lower the bar of what is acceptable. Before long, both sides are stretching the truth. Passions may be aroused, but the real legacy of this kind of discourse are cloudy memories and deepening cynicism.
Public relations professionals have witnessed this erosion of public conversation, and sometimes contributed to its demise with less than truthful assertions. Now the chickens have come home to roost. With thinner media news staffs and more channels for rogue fact-telling that can be retweeted mindlessly, it has become harder for the public to know what to believe. As a result, they find something better to do than pay attention.
There is no magic elixir to wash away this problem. It is here to stay and, if anything, getting worse. The best approach under the circumstances is to produce credible third-party validation for claims you make, then be unrelenting in pressing those claims and their validation in public venues.
This is painstaking work that involves creativity, discipline and grit. It requires getting out your side of the story first. It may require confronting opponents who deal in slippery arguments and dubious facts. It definitely will require spending patient time working with reporters and editors to tell your story, provide your facts and validate your claims.
And one counterintuitive suggestion: Be able to tell your opponent's story better than your opponent. It's not your job to tell the other side's story, but if you can tell it fairly and accurately, you earn credibility – and a greater chance that people listen to your story and trust it is the truth.