Why do we mistrust the media?


I conversed with a reporter for well-known national news organization. The subject was media coverage of government (or at least my portion of it). The conversation was fun and honest but I asked if we within government were better at transparency and openness compared to past years.

I expected a rather gratuitous answer of yes. In this day and age of social media, openness and transparency I had assumed that we understood the value of a cooperative and honest relationship with the media. Her answer was disturbing.

She stated that openness and access had declined and told stories about stonewalling governmental agencies.

The number one public relations problem in America:

I have a 30 year career of speaking to the media for national and state government operations. I’m fortunate that the organizations I worked for were/are media savvy.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at a multitude of conferences throughout the country about public relations and social media. But the issue I encounter more than any other is our collective mistrust of the media.

In my opinion, this is the number one public relations problem in America. I’ve spoken to my counterparts in the corporate world, nonprofits and associations and stories of reporters who have done wrong are legendary.

Not playing along with this mass agreement that most reporters are scumbags is like the proverbial flatulence in church; it stops all conversation. People look at you as if you came to a wedding dressed as an Elvis impersonator.

Swimming Upstream:

I learned over the years not to fight this too hard. People’s prejudices (justified or not) are so deeply ingrained as to be overwhelming. I simply agree to disagree and move on.

In their defense, one only has to look as the numerous studies as to the media and trust over time. See http://www.people-press.org/2011/09/22/press-widely-criticized-but-trusted-more-than-other-institutions/ for one example. The bottom line? We have grown increasingly distrustful of the media. But note that Pew does state that people trust them more than they trust government.

Some observations:

We can’t deal openly and honestly with the media if we hold firmly to the principle that reporters and news organizations can’t be trusted to provide fair and objective reporting. If we want fairness, we have to provide it. We have all had negative encounters with select reporters “but” that’s not the norm.

It’s a matter of accountability. Media rights are enshrined in the Constitution. People want open government. We’re more than a bit obligated to provide reasonable and legal access. The same applies to our counterparts in the corporate, association and nonprofit worlds.

It’s a matter of practicality. Media can go for the jugular or they can provide fair reporting. It’s your choice. Stonewall them and see what happens.

Media will talk to your detractors and they will control the story if you don’t provide access. Your choice.

But what I tell people is that after more than 30 years of talking to reporters, I’ve never been burned. Want an interesting experience? Say that to a bunch of government people and watch their faces (imagine being a father as your teenage daughter introduces you to her biker boyfriend).

Shall I go on? It’s as if you belonged to a private organization and talked openly about their rituals. People will react as if you have betrayed them and their fundamental principles.

Reporters rarely trash you and your organization “if” they believe you are honorable people doing an honorable job and “if” you provide reasonable access and “if” you are reasonably polite. Yep, I’ve been on the receiving end of negative stories because my organizations made mistakes but that comes with the territory. The coverage was factual and that’s all you can ask for. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t mean-spirited.

This article will not change minds:

The comments from this article or future discussions about the topic will involve horror stories of reporters gone wrong and lying or slanting facts to fit a preconceived notion of a story. The accounts are both real and disturbing.

But I have had conversations with thousands of reporters and editors and 98 percent of them are no different from the rest of us; they are working stiffs who simply want to get the job over and done with the least amount of friction. Providing open and (dare I say it?) friendly access is not only clearly in our best interest, it’s expected by the people we serve.

But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that most reaction will be more stories about media gone wrong. Most will involve examples of an incident or two years ago and some will forever base preconceived notions of media relations on these incidents.

So for some of us, media coverage is preordained. The results are predictable. As to unflattering news coverage, we have met the enemy and he is us (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip). Blaming media for results that stem from hostile and unreasonable delays and denials seems pointless.

Best, Len.

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