News Coverage Stinks-Why I Wrote “Success With the Media”

by admin on June 22, 2016

Success with Media_Book front cover

News Coverage Stinks-Why I Wrote “Success With the Media”

There was a time not so long ago when extremely knowledgeable beat reporters would call spokespeople and coproduced newspaper articles and electronic reports that served the public well.

Through a combination of on and off the record conversations, news, context, and valuable information would flow. Decision- makers and the public would have the information they need to make informed choices.

After thirty-five years of being a government spokesperson, I can tell you that the coverage I describe above is mostly a relic of the past.

I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that spokespeople from government, business and nonprofits are becoming somewhat irrelevant. They need organizational support and better tools to do the job.

Observations of Spokespeople

This observation is based on hundreds of conversations with spokespeople who complain that their freedom and creativity to interact freely with the media is compromised by organizations that literally mistrust (hate?) the media.

The Federal Communicators Network recently stated that, after a survey of 169 federal spokespeople, 82 percent stated that a more rigorous communications program is a priority, and that almost none (11 percent) strongly agreed that the communications function has input into important agency decisions.

If you talk to spokespeople from a wide variety of agencies and business, you get the same theme; an overly cautious approach to media relations. We’ve gone from a corps of smart and aggressive media relations people to a bunch of nervous nellies who are uncertain of their roles.

As spokespeople, we want engagement. We want a full and informed discussion. If we are honorable people doing an honorable job, we collectively prosper from transparency.

There is a collective belief within many agencies that we can fool most of the media most of the time, which is disastrous if all hell breaks loose, and the media believes that you have been less than honest.

So What Happened?

What happened is that the media went away. There are two main reasons for the current state of news coverage.

First is the decrease in the numbers of reporters.

The American Society of News Editors found its first double-digit decline in newsroom count since the Great Recession of seven years ago. Newsroom jobs dropped 10.4 percent — down to 32,900 full-time journalists in 2014. At its top, newsroom employment hit 56,900 in 1990.

Television and radio reporters also suffered though significant declines in general assignment news staff.

The bottom-line is that tough, extremely knowledgeable journalists are often a thing of the past. General assignment reporters, who are just as powerless as the spokespeople assisting them, are now the norm.

The second reason is that spokespeople do not have the training, tools or institutional support to guide them through the media relations process. Veteran spokespeople who fought for the legitimate rights of the media and advocated for a middle-ground approach have retired. Those left are not trained or prepared for the inevitable bad news days that are guaranteed to come.

So What?

For many organizations, this is a golden age of gaining the upper hand. We can stonewall the media bastards. We can say little and get away with it. We can make our points through written statements and social media. We don’t have to be accountable to the media or anyone else. Spokespeople often define circumstances of stories for unknowledgeable reporters.

Results:

What I describe above are not without consequences. I feel that the data below are a direct influence of what’s transpired:

Per Gallup, four in 10 Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. This ties the historical lows on this measure set in 2014 and 2012.

Local TV news lost audience in every major timeslot. More broadly, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey suggests that as many as one-in-seven Americans have turned away from cable or satellite

Per Pew, the public’s trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).

Per Gallup, Americans’ confidence in most major U.S. institutions remains below the historical average for each one. Only the military (72%) and small business (67%) — the highest-rated institutions in this year’s poll — are currently rated higher than their historical norms, based on the percentage expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institution.

While trust is based on an array of issues far beyond news coverage, frustration with the media and all institutions is, in my opinion, a major part of the America public’s lack of confidence in the news process.

Quite simply, I believe that Americans feel misinformed by the media and most institutions.

Great News Coverage Used to be the Norm

During my 35-year career in media relations, I generally had the leeway necessary to make decisions about news coverage. It was my responsibility. I protected my organizations through service,  honesty and transparency.

There used to be beat reporters who knew everything about the subject matter. They were journalists who knew their stuff. They weren’t afraid to take you to task. They were fearless.

Spokespeople and beat reporters coproduced knowledgeable and informed articles. They battled each other for hours at a time but there was mutual trust; it was in everyone’s best interest to figure it out.

It seems that for most news beats except for technology, sports or business, that era has passed.

For the Cynics

For the cynics, no, news coverage in the past wasn’t pretty and what I describe ‘is’ a bit rose colored. At times I hated the rudeness of reporters and the unreasonableness of agency colleagues. The trust I describe was limited and hard-fought. Yep, I employed every possible advantage to minimize damage and to represent our point of view. But at its worst, it beats the lack of transparency that exists today.

Yes, there are still great reporters doing yeoman’s work and wonderful coverage continues for some sectors. The rise of expert-based  websites continues.  But if you think this represents most reporters covering most events, we need to have a long talk.

To Get Great News Coverage

There are five basic points as to getting great news coverage:

  1. Articles and reports of substance are based on trust between reporters and spokespeople, and the organizations they represent.
  2. Effective media coverage is based on reporters and spokespeople coproducing reports.
  3. We need knowledgeable beat reporters.
  4. Spokespeople and reporters need training and time to build relationships and understandings.
  5. There needs to be an agreement between all parties as to what needs to happen and why.
What’s At Stake?

The media plays “the” watchdog role in America Society. Reporters hold the rest of us accountable.

When that role is diminished significantly, public trust recedes and our democracy is diminished.

Your dislike of the media is not the point. Sooner or later, bad news will catch up with you and threaten you and everything your organizations stands for. What I advocate is clearly in your best interest, whether you realize it or not.

The larger issues are considerable. The food you eat, the services you get, the safety of your children, and the decisions you and others make are all driven by media coverage.

If that coverage is bad to inadequate, it has implications for us all. As citizens, we understand the role of the media and how it helps us all come to grips with our lives.

You may distrust them, and you probably do, but that’s not the point, is it?

“Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization (available at Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) is based on hundreds of conversations with spokespeople and reporters. The book seeks to find a better way to coproduce news coverage.

Source for the report from the Federal Communicators Network, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxpSkjwDNb6QaDhkcjdTcno0aWM/view.

 

 

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