Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why Would Anyone Talk to a Reporter Today?

I get that question a lot. Usually it comes when I'm conducting a media training session, teaching people how to talk with reporters. The question is getting harder to answer.

Multiple major media outlets (CNN, Boston Globe, AP) reported that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombings when no such arrest had been made. The New York Post wrongfully identified two people from a surveillance photo as suspects when they weren't. The paper also reported 12 fatalities early on, even though the number was three.

These types of mistakes are partly the nature of breaking news. Sam Donaldson wrote in a book many years ago that 50% of the information during a breaking story is usually wrong. Sam never tells us which 50% that is. Even knowing that the information in a breaking story changes, the media's initial coverage of Boston was an embarrassment to the profession.

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley weighed in recently with a speech in which he says journalism's "house is on fire" and "we're getting the big stories wrong, over and over again."

According to Gallup, 60% of the American public has little or no trust in news media. Audiences and readership have been declining, as trust in media has been eroding. In the same survey, 30% of people surveyed told pollsters they had abandoned a media outlet because it no longer provided information they found useful.

I realize there is a big dose of self-interest in this post. I make my living teaching people to communicate with journalists. That doesn't mean the three reasons below are less valid. There is still value in talking to reporters.

Mainstream media is the feedstock for social media. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has, for the last decade, issued a State of the News Media report. The 2013 report shows that 15% of adults get most of their news through their social networks. The big number is that more than three-quarters (77%) of those people follow links to full news stories. What this tells us is that even those people who rely on social media to be informed, will still go to mainstream media to get a more complete picture of stories that are important to them.

Social media is perceived as less credible than traditional media. 
A study in Communication Quarterly showed that tweets from The New York Times, were viewed less credibly than either short or long online stories from The Times even though all three contained the same information. While this is true now, it is likely to shift as social media becomes even more ingrained in our daily lives.

Mainstream media is more accountable than social media. It's hard not to feel as though mainstream media are making more mistakes and caring less about making them. However, most mainstream outlets will correct faulty stories. Also, information on social networks is not often indexed for public search engines and, therefore, is of little value beyond the moment. That doesn't mean you stay out of social media in a crisis; just as mainstream media content drives social media use, the reverse is also true. The website Breaking News has a whitelist of more than 300 mainstream media Twitter feeds that pop up immediately in front of its editors. The site describes it as the largest news-tipping network on Twitter.

There you have it. Three reasons why talking to a reporter is still valuable. But what of the media? Any advice for them? Sure, two words.

Suck less.

Bill Salvin