If you ask clients about media these days, you’re apt to get the echo of what you hear from friends and neighbors: They’re biased and they never get anything right. Media bashing is at an all-time high and media companies should be worried. According to Pew’s latest poll, the public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades.
What really scares people is being in the same room at the same time, ostensibly hearing and seeing the same information as reporters, then reading an entirely different account in the newspaper the following day—or a version so abbreviated and condensed for TV, it leads a consumer to wonder: Was I even in the same place?
When you look back at recent decades of media history, there are still high spots of investigative and watchdog journalism—the kind of reporting that keeps us safe, sound and warm in our beds at night. But those legitimate exposes and uncovering of ill-spent government money are spottier these days.
When I do catch those stories on the local news, I’m generally surprised anyone can pull it off with Silas Marner-like media executives counting the gold coins for investors—then telling the employee who’s been there for decades that she has to take 30 consecutive days off without pay.
I remember when the tide started turning when I was a reporter. I was asked by an editor to call a woman whose family had been hit by the very public death of a child. I had barely uttered the name of my newspaper (politely) when she said: “I don’t have to talk to you.” My attempt to thank her for the time was cut off as she hung up.
That was around 1989. According to Pew, it was around the same time in the mid-1980s that majorities of citizens surveyed said they believed that news organizations tried to cover up mistakes, tended to favor one side on political and social issues, and were influenced by the powerful.
But private citizens have private lives and even being thrust into the glare of a public tragedy doesn’t require talking to the press. Even the Simon family asked that Mel Simon’s funeral be kept private for a man who was a very public figure.
Today, the few who believe that news organizations are independent of powerful people and organizations (only 20 percent) or are willing to admit their mistakes (only 21 percent) are at all-time lows.
With clients who are anxious to get into the positive light of the media—it’s even more difficult to convince them that reporters are actually capable of telling stories accurately, without personal bias and undue influence—or that reporters will run corrections when facts are misstated, by error or omission.
Most recently a woman in Texas working with us on a national initiative, asked to please be exempted from any calls to media—should they be interested. She was opting out despite her clear attachment, involvement and passion for the project. When I asked her why, she simply said: “Oh, they never tell the truth.”
Imagine that. She apparently now is among the growing legions who believe the very same. And for that very reason alone, media executives better start paying attention.