Why do the words “Trust” and “News” in the same sentence seem unbelievable to the audience?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980’s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?

BP’s approach to the oil spill crisis – corporate sacrifce! Let’s toss our friends into the sea.

There’s an established rule in crisis communications that you round-up your allies and stand together — sink or swim, but both human or corporate  sacrifice is frowned upon as poor sportsmanship.

That rule was cast aside Monday by BP CEO Tony Hayward who threw his Gulf of Mexico drilling vendor Transocean Ltd. directly into the deep water saying, “The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people, their processors.”

Oh Mr. Hayward?  How do you feel about companies or people you really dislike?  In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Mr. Hayward went on to point out that Transocean owned the giant Deepwater Horizon platform and that BP was merely a lessee.  While accepting the burden of paying for clean up costs one has to wonder what Hayward was thinking?  Why was he sitting on national television dissing what until last week was considered a valued partner to BP’s global operations?

So much for loyalty.  So much for corporate responsibility.  Hayward could be laying the framework for a legal defense to put as much of the blame, the harsh light of public recrimination and ultimately the public memory onto the shoulders of his Swiss partner Transocean.  To this observer it appears a flimsy and transparent attempt to add to the slimy oil slick also known as the ever-expanding blame game.

Kudos to Mr. Hayward – he appeared sincere and forthright.  He was well-trained and prepared.  But his statements left real doubt as to the corporate courage and conviction of BP… and I bet the blame will be shared by many more before the well or this story is capped.

Numbers Do Matter

News has become a playground for worsts and mosts and hyperbole.  News and TV generally from cable shows to even entertainment programs like Dr. Phil make everything black and white, regardless that we live our lives for the most part in the nuance of gray.  It’s not enough to be sad or sick, we want the people we see, read and hear about (and their stories) to be at death’s door.

Reporting numbers and speaking with experts is always challenging, after all, they, in theory, have knowledge that generalists and most journalists do not possess, but why is it that journalists so frequently fail to challenge their hyperbole?

During the weekend’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill one so-called expert from the Sierra Club spoke to NBC News with great emotion and absolute conviction that the spill was far larger than had previously been reported.  He gushed on suggesting the spill could in fact be 50,000 gallons, even 100,000 gallons a day!  Perhaps true, but he didn’t know, and he wasn’t challenged by the reporter who blithely accepted the assertion and proceeded on in the narration.  That’s a significant number and a wide discrepancy of perhaps up to 100%.  It’s OK not to know; it is OK to even speculate, but how about some context or qualification before numbers – any numbers – become misunderstood and the story misreported?

Geraldo (Rivera) on FOX News did it too, breathlessly interviewing guests from a busy Times Square intersection about what could of happened had the car bomb detonated.  Note the verb: could.  One guest, obviously pumped by the opportunity to appear on TV, burst forth that had a dirty bomb gone off “Times Square would be contaminated for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”  Geraldo and the other guests solemnly but enthusiastically nodded approvingly accepting this assertion as sober evidence of absolute danger and impact.  The fact that the Times Square bomb was not dirty was never challenged while again, just speculating with the numbers between 50 and 100 leaves significant room for debate and discussion.

Speaking of numbers and expert’s assertions, look back at coverage from the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.  When covering that we heard experts say that the ocean and islands would remain scorched earth and that nothing would ever grow on those shores or under those waters again.  The reality, within 6 months nature started to return.

The point is simple, but it is beyond bad news sells.  Yes it does… and that’s news.  If you want just the good news you should confine yourself, for the most part, to the sports section, although even that has become more difficult in recent years due to scandals and bad behavior.

It is frustrating that contemporary reporting on the oil spill requires reporters to seek out experts who are prompted to say the sea is forever doomed and all creatures will inevitably die, choked by oil and cloaked in a gooey slime unlike any we have ever seen before.  The car bomb isn’t allowed to be a close call but becomes an incident that would surely have resulted in thousands of casualties and a forever blackened a New York landmark.

Each sentence is mired in half-truths and certainly assumptions run amok.  As a journalist I bristle at what I consider to be reckless reporting that appears to hype the story, feed the hysteria, and ultimately deceive the audience.  There are so many other examples – certainly politics and it doesn’t matter whether you favor the left or the right, the administration or the opposition, health care reform or tea parties – my point is that reporters who use numbers and hyperbole unchallenged and unqualified do not serve the public interest, do not serve their profession well, and do more harm to the public discourse.