Pointing accusing fingers at the news media is fashionable, and not just the tweeter-in-chief. But before you take aim, take a moment to consider who in the media you are blaming and for what.
Christina Nicholson, a former TV reporter and anchor who now operates her own PR shop, says it helps to understand how the media works before criticizing how it works.
First off, Nicholson says, the term “media” covers a wide range of people – TV meteorologists, newspaper lifestyle reporters, copyeditors, bloggers, columnists, high-profile TV talk show hosts and editorial writers, to name a few. They work for everything from small rural weekly newspapers to conspiracy theory-spinning websites to cable TV networks, and more. There is Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow who espouse points of view, and then there are thousands of everyday journalists trying to do their jobs.
Suggesting the news media is all in cahoots is like saying all cowboys smoke Marlboros. It’s the kind of generalization that insults the individuality of reporters, editors and cowboys.
Nicholson points out most credible news organizations start their day by surveying what is going on and assessing how they will cover it. Based on her own experience, she says phrases such as “Let’s spin this more liberally” or “Make sure it has a conservative feel” aren’t typically heard in these editorial meetings. More often than not, the goal is “Make sure you get both sides.” Or, at least try to get both sides.
Judging a publication’s or broadcaster’s slant based on what stories gets air time is fair, but it is also a lot like reacting to controversial foul calls in a basketball or football game. What you see reflects what you want to see, not necessarily bias by reporters or referees,
“I’ve come to realize,” Nicholson observes, “that people think their opinions are facts. People will describe a news story and create a bias on the own. If you look hard enough, you’ll find it – regardless if it’s really there or not.”
Nicholson describes a story she covered about families standing in line to receive presents from the Salvation Army. When the reporter and cameramen showed up, everyone in line happened to be Hispanic. When the story was filed, the TV station news manager asked for other footage showing non-Hispanics. When the piece aired showing just Hispanics in line, calls predictably flooded in about biased coverage. Some said it was gig on Latinos. Others said it proved Hispanics were looking for handouts. The actual coverage made no such claims. It was tarred and feathered by the biases of viewers.
One of the main sources of complaints about fairness are storylines that drag on through multiple news cycles – or even longer.
President Trump complains about the daily drip of relentless coverage regarding his team’s ties to Russian interests. Hillary Clinton bemoaned the constant references to her private email server and, later, to the strategically timed leaks of embarrassing emails jut before the 2016 election. It is hard to fault the news media when a former Trump lieutenant with ties to Russia asks for immunity to tell his story or when the director of the FBI writes to Congress about a new batch of emails found on the home computer of a top Clinton aide.
Neither Trump nor Clinton should point the finger at the media. They should look at themselves in the mirror and realize they failed to deal head on with a story sure to breed infectious media contagion. Instead of pointing fingers, they should have raised their hands to clear the air, as best they could.
Best practice crisis advice calls on organizations and individuals to own their crisis, take steps to redress it, pledge ways to avoid its recurrence and to make it right with victims. There is no room in that sequence for blaming the news media.
Maybe the media isn’t treating you absolutely fairly. Then it’s your job to win their respect with actions, not epithets.
As Nicholson advises, visit a TV newsroom, shadow a reporter and watch how the news is crunched into 90-second nuggets. “I guarantee you will be disappointed, at not only the lack of glamor, but the lack of agenda. The truth is, we don’t even have time to create and agenda, and if we found extra time, we’d eat.”