Category Archives: News content

Rule Number One: Be Skeptical

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When we consume information, it helps to be skeptical. It’s a good idea, of course, to be dubious of anything that comes from extremist organizations. Not just their “fake news” but also items that seem plausible.

We should also be skeptical of news and information we receive from the “mainstream media.” Whether it’s a hard news report from Washington or a puff piece in the neighborhood paper, numerous factors determine the content that’s delivered.

Questions worth asking: Is the reporter a friend or nemesis of his/her source? Did the subject of an upbeat item spend ad money on the outlet? Did an editor remove a key element of the piece because somebody took her/him out to dinner? Did a PR person offer an exclusive scoop in exchange for a prominent placement? We can’t know the answers, so everything we read, see and hear should be subject to that healthy skepticism.

No matter the source of information, it’s important to consider that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. All of us are subject to influences of our upbringing, our schooling, our past and current professional relationships, as well as personal friends and acquaintances.

Mass gullibility is not a new thing. Mistrust of news media is not a new thing. Nor is mistrust of elected officials. (Remember the Maine!)

It’s often necessary to get info from multiple sources in order to obtain the full scope of an issue. The New York Times may play up a certain aspect of global warming, for instance, whereas the Wall Street Journal may try to poke holes in the NYT’s version of facts. The exact truth may lie somewhere between their respective takes.

As a consumer of information, you should be able to know what is being shared as factual information and what is labeled as comment or opinion. Print and online outlets generally do a good job of differentiating. Broadcast and cable outlets sometimes fail to make clear which is which.

In these days of extreme polarization, an open mind can help you get the full picture. Certainly, many individuals will always be steadfast in their beliefs and their prejudices. Some people will believe anything they hear from conservative-leaning outlets and others will put full trust into anything they get from liberal-leaning outlets.

Wherever you receive your information, be it a trusted source or one you view with caution, maintain your healthy skepticism as you determine your own version of the facts. As they used to say on the X-Files, the truth is out there. You just have to find it.

For more on determining the validity of news we receive, you may want to check out these thoughts from NPR Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep. Click HERE to link to his article. Even if you perceive NPR to have a particular agenda, you may find his “finder’s guide for facts” useful.

(photo credit: Bruno Meyer Photography; http://www.flickr.com/photos/55293868@N08/31907319405; http://photopin.com; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0)

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An Appearance of Bias

Another St. Louis media figure bites the dust over a social media posting. In late 2011, a local radio host who didn’t understand how Twitter works, was suspended for obscene replies to listener tweets.

Now, in 2013, a veteran TV newsman has been fired for doing what he apparently believed was the right thing to do. According to stltoday.com, Larry Conners had been “encouraged to write ‘personal observations of news events’ and decided to write a Facebook post about his IRS problems.”

Because of recent stories of IRS actions against political conservatives, and because Conners had conducted a tough interview of the president, Conners commented on Facebook about his personal dealings with the IRS. KMOV and its owners deemed that posting improper and chose to terminate his employment.

The station’s general manager claimed that Conners’ Facebook comment creates an appearance of bias. This is the same station whose new 10:00 p.m. male co-anchor is the radio play-by-play voice of the St. Louis Rams, a team that has been engaged in recent confrontations with local taxpayer funded agencies over stadium issues.

I would not be the first person to point out that there could be an appearance of bias in any KMOV reporting on the Rams (on the field and off).

My suggestion for managers and owners of media outlets is to explain clearly to your employees where the line is in social media. If you want your reporters and on-air personnel to engage with readers, viewers and listeners, give detailed guidance.

My suggestion for employees in any job, anywhere, is to be careful what you post on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites. Especially if you are an older, highly compensated employee in a high profile position.

In this instance, there is an appearance of bias by KMOV management against employees whose termination might positively affect the bottom line. I’m not saying that’s a true fact, but it’s my perception. And you know what media folks say about perception.

 

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Making a List, Checking It Twice

Lists are a longtime media staple. Lists are a good way to get attention for your organization. For media outlets, a list provides content that can provoke readers, listeners and viewers to offer feedback. For those seeking coverage, a list assembled or created by your organization can get your name mentioned and may lead to follow up coverage.

The two main types of lists for media consumption are (1) empirical lists, which are based on real data and (2) arbitrary lists, which are based on opinion. Many media outlets list the weekend’s top movies each Monday morning—that’s empirical data. (Actually, those box office figures are studio estimates, but they are usually quite accurate.)

The arbitrary lists are the ones that are more likely to generate discussion. Entertainment Weekly magazine has published tons of arbitrary lists during its two-plus decades—some brilliant, some laughable. A newspaper or magazine’s list of top restaurants, lawyers, golf courses, donut shops, etc. can help establish credibility and awareness for those listed. They also, inevitably, elicit complaints about who got left off the list.

For PR pros, a list that you deliver to media has the potential to bring your organization into the spotlight. If your client is, say, an accountant, his or her Top Ten End of Year Tax Tips could be worth a segment on talk radio or a blurb in a newspaper business section. If your client is a hot dog vendor, a list of his Top Ten Condiments might resonate with food media types.

Lists are also a major component of blogs. Therefore, I’d like to digress slightly and offer my list of the Five Most Worthless Lists:

  1. Any Men’s Health magazine list. How can a city go from 3rd to 7th on the Fattest Cities list in a year? Their lists are totally fabricated, but media always give them big play.
  2. Movie Year-End Top Ten lists by critics who try to “out-obscure” other critics (and readers) by listing movies that most people have never seen and never will see. Useless.
  3. David Letterman’s Top Ten List. In the 90’s, the nightly lists (which originated as a parody of our obsession with lists) were hilarious. Now, the Top Ten List is just “fill in the blank” comedy writing and not nearly as funny as some of those to be found online.
  4. Any online list whose primary purpose is to generate page views by making you click on a new (often slow-loading) page for each list entry. These are generally not worth the trouble.
  5. Lists of All-Time Greats compiled by votes from the public. People have short memories. Yes, icons are forever (note Sean Connery’s generally being chosen as Best Bond), but recent favorites tend to out poll outstanding movie stars, pro jocks, presidents, cars, etc. from decades past.

To my media friends, keep sharing and making lists. They can be entertaining and informative. But use good editorial judgment and weed out the weaker ones.

To my PR friends, try creating and sending a list to your list (of media contacts). If it’s good content, it could get you and your client some media love.

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Experts Agree: You May Soon Be Dead

Manhattan Could Be Under Water by 2018. I detest “speculative news.” These are the news stories that tell you something can or maybe will happen—the more outrageous, the better.

Urban Beavers May Threaten Pets. Blame it on PR people and blame it on media. Need publicity for your organization? Blast out a claim from one of your researchers about something bad that might happen someday. Begin with the words like “latest evidence suggests…” If your story can touch off fear and panic, media folk will run with it and be grateful to you!

Eating Pomegranates Could Cause Back Pain. Wired magazine and NPR shows like “All Things Considered” are the worst offenders, but other media outlets do it, too. Why? Because these stories make you wonder if, say, polar bears really could migrate down to Des Moines by 2015. And when 2015 rolls around and Des Moines has no polar bears, who’s going to call ‘em on it?

Asteroid Headed for Arkansas; 50-Mile Wide Crater Feared. The worst speculative news story of all time, in my opinion, was the panic over killer bees. If those stories we heard decades ago had turned out to be true, El Paso would now be a ghost town. A close runner-up was coverage of the Y2K bug, which ultimately affected just a handful of computers. And how many times have we been told that the world would run out of petroleum by [pick a year]?

Research Shows Inhaling Patchouli May Lead To Increased Frugality. This complaint is not about the weather person telling us that approaching storms could be threatening. My problem is with stories that exploit our concerns about our long-term futures and those of our kids. Speculative news stories often reek of fear mongering. Their only real value is that they get a viewer’s/listener’s/reader’s attention more readily than a ho-hum, boilerplate crime story. And sometimes they get discussed around the water cooler.

Study Suggests Earth’s Supply of Naugahyde Could Vanish by 2021. Is there anything we can do about these stories? Media gatekeepers can kick-save them away from inboxes and copy desks. And PR people can pass along real news items about their clients, rather than speculative news. To recycle a catchphrase of former ESPN Sportscenter anchor Dan Patrick, “We can’t stop them. We can only hope to contain them.”

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