How to Tame the ‘Media Beast’ in Today’s Wild West News World
In nightmares PR pros like me cringe about their companies and clients being devoured by the so-called Media Beast. These bad dreams are punctuated by banner headlines and viral stories exemplifying program or policy deficiencies, which are further magnified by inaccurate and non-objective reporting. It’s enough to jolt you awake in a cold sweat gasping for air and yearning for the good old days of iconic journalists like Walter Cronkite— decades before the explosion of cable news, the internet, and social media.
Today’s mobile, digital and virtual Information Age means the media is more massive and malicious due to fierce competition over readership, ratings and revenue.
Too much of today’s 24/7 hyper-paced news cycle is often driven by openly biased talking heads waging ideological wars based on political correctness. Facts and opinions are often merged, obfuscated and can be difficult to discern — which has a detrimental impact on news consumers seeking truth and objectivity. Nevertheless, if you happen to be a professional communicator then it’s your job to feed the ravenous appetite of the Media Beast before it feasts on the organization or individuals you represent. But before new media strategies are formulated and implemented, it’s first necessary to understand the current state of the fluid media evolution and related challenges for PR pros. Some important factors to consider include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Relevance of traditional media (also called legacy media or old media).
- Convergence of old and new media (mobile, digital, social).
- Generational differences in news consumption and reporting.
- Corporate ownership of major media organizations.
- Rise of so-called “fake news” versus negative news that is factual.
Old Media Not Dead Yet
My prior article examined why traditional media still matters. This reality is especially important to comprehend for a new generation of young people born into an all-consuming digital world, one where smart devices function as appendages. But despite the conventional wisdom of Millennials and Generation Z, traditional media is not dead yet.
Rather, the giants of old journalism continue to transition and transform by leveraging new mobile and digital technologies to reach a broader range of diverse audiences.
Yet the signs all point to younger generations being obsessed by social media alone. This can be problematic from a PR perspective. Despite the ubiquitous nature of social media, it’s vital to strike the appropriate balance of leveraging new and old media — which are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, old media outlets (TV network/cable news, radio and national newspapers) still account for a significant amount of news consumption by American and global audiences whether online or off, according to groups like the Pew Research Center.
Many news organizations are now on popular social platforms, albeit with limited content which might be hidden behind paywalls. But obtaining positive press today is about more than just social media marketing on mainstays like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Old-school media relations can still pay dividends in terms of favorable coverage in a volatile and hostile news environment.
Today’s professional communicators of all ages must rapidly reach broad populations, plus niche target audiences, through a range of mediums both old and new.
The standard bearers of print journalism — such as The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal — continue to break major news on a regular basis, along with their network TV and cable counterparts. These stories drive the nonstop news cycle and are magnified on digital and social platforms. In essence, traditional journalism is undergoing a radical makeover with major media seeking out more online real estate. Old and new media outlets continue to converge in both predictable and unforeseen ways. But one thing that hasn’t changed inside newsrooms are the mantras that “sensationalism sells” and “if it bleeds it leads.” In fact, there’s more negative news today compared to other times throughout history, according to numerous studies.
Shoot First, Ask Later
Newsflash: Welcome to the Wild West media world of sensationalism and “infotainment” substituting for the hard news of yesteryear. Yet despite all the criticism, it’s worth noting that the media has always been under fire for one reason or another. The public approval rating for the media, in general, has consistently been dismally low, even though some news outlets are trusted more than others.
In the early 1900s, for instance, President Teddy Roosevelt castigated reporters as “muckrakers” — and the term “yellow journalism” was coined even before that.
However, the nature and business of journalism was significantly less complicated before cable TV news arrived on the scene via CNN in 1980 and other channels thereafter. Then the mainstreaming of the internet and explosion of social/digital media further blurred the lines between fact and opinion. Too many unscrupulous reporters have operated with an “anything goes” approach. They shoot first and ask questions later. They aim to make a name for themselves and the media outlets they represent. This has all resulted in the public becoming more jaded, cynical and perplexed about what accounts for real journalism these days.
The situation has also been exacerbated by a handful of global conglomerates which now own and oversee most of the media, from traditional news outlets to digital and social sites. Many mega-corporations have allowed their news divisions to act with impunity to remain competitive in the Information Age. This has manifested in a cavalier attitude by some news organizations — if not a reckless indifference — regarding what separates facts from fiction. Yet accuracy and veracity are the foundational tenets of good journalism on an institutional level.
Facts and objectivity are the lifeblood of legitimate reporting. Journalists still have an inherent responsibility to tell the truth and report the facts.
It’s unfortunate that the lust for profits and need for speed by corporate-owned news media has translated into ratings and revenue wars. The result: facts are the ultimate casualties at the expense of public trust. The primary goal is to break news at all costs in order to remain competitive per survival of the fittest. Meanwhile, hundreds of newspapers have already shuttered over the years on regional and local levels — which has suppressed the free flow of objective news and accurate information to the public.
The Wild West world of 21st-century media does not necessarily bode well for professional communicators. This is due to more negative news spreading on more mediums than at any other time in history. Sensationalism and media “hit jobs” have risen to new heights, causing the public to increasingly view institutions, brands and public figures in a state of disrepute. Crisis communication conundrums are more commonplace than ever in the public and private sectors alike in what seems like a never-ending vicious loop.
Today’s cutting-edge technology cuts both ways, allowing negative news to go viral in real time regardless of whether the content is accurate or scurrilous.
As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once observed: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Churchill’s truism has now expanded to the entire planet. It’s a sad statement on the historic bedrock principles of truth and accuracy in reporting, which appear to be exceedingly rare in today’s modern era. Too much of today’s news is distorted to conform with the partisan and ideological views of target audiences. The result is an echo chamber of media “confirmation bias” which can lead to extremism. This raises critical questions: Is so-called “fake news” becoming the new normal? If so, where, when and how will this troubling trend end? Is simply disagreeing with verbatim facts reported by traditional media a legitimate reason to dismiss and demonize the Fourth Estate? How should PR practitioners and news consumers respond to draconian attacks on the media meant to discredit their legitimacy and erode freedom of the press?
Every veteran communicator already understands the challenges of consistently obtaining positive press under the best of circumstances. However, the current news landscape is devolving into the worst of circumstances.
Today’s mastery of media relations is analogous to swimming against the tide amid a school of hungry sharks with blood in the water.
Yet despite all of the media upheaval online and off, one vital factor remains the human element. PR pros need to remember that reporters are people too and act accordingly for mutually beneficial media relations. But this reality appears lost on Millennials and Gen Z who would rather text than talk and use Facebook instead of meeting face to face. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that PR pros reach out to individual reporters directly on a personal level as part of a comprehensive communications strategy. The Wild West news world presents unique challenges and opportunities for communicators of all generations. Perhaps it’s time to get back to the basics of media relations to help shape a better news environment for all. Hence, below are three time-tested tactics to improve media relations and obtain positive press with more accuracy and objectivity by news organizations:
- Humanize It
- Be Accessible
- Be Transparent
The media alone shouldn’t be blamed for deficiencies in journalism standards and the coarsening of public discourse. PR pros on the front lines have a critically important role to play in striving for overall improvements too. And it all starts with getting back to basics regarding the art of media relations.
Forthcoming articles will explore the aforementioned fundamental elements of media relations in detail. Thus stay tuned for more…