Media’s “Land Of Confusion” Needs Its Own PR

The business of media ends 2017 in worse shape than it started and that’s bad news for our society.

Many of the challenges are financially-driven and there are few, if any, clear ways around that. But some of the issues are driven by factors that PR has traditionally been asked to help resolve – trust and reputation – and those must be addressed.

It’s not an easy problem to attempt to solve. The President of the United States himself is trying to undermine confidence in the institution of journalism and others are following. Partisan-oriented outlets have long engendered audience loyalty by trashing “the mainstream media.” News mistakes, while they happen rarely, get more attention than ever via politically-fueled social media outrage. Many consumers only trust only their friends, meaning 200-300, on average, Facebook contacts via the prism of Facebook’s algorithm, to steer news decisions for them.

Too often, trying to consume news is like navigating a “Land of Confusion.” It’s more murky than ever to consumers what’s a piece of fact-based reporting, what’s an opinion and how opinion journalism is different from social media rants.

Do you know the difference between a news story, an editorial, an op-ed and a column? Once upon a time, when they were packaged in a newspaper, it was pretty easy to figure out even if you weren’t well-versed in news jargon. Now, online, it all looks alike. Even many communications professionals we encounter use those terms interchangeably. How could the average news consumer possibly “get it?”

News organizations would greatly benefit, during this crisis of credibility, by employing some PR tactics, namely honest and clear communication. Develop some standard language used to disclaim, but mostly explain, online as part of news presentation. Let straight news stories stand alone. But for an editorial, explain how and why they are developed and presented. For an op-ed, explain that it’s an opinion piece written submitted from a reader, but vetted by journalists. For a column, the small picture of the author doesn’t explain that it’s designed to be informed opinion, contributing to the understanding of an issue. More than anything else, it seems, opinion pieces themselves need to be disclaimed as such, to aid in audience understanding.

Right now, critics of journalism are winning, as trust erodes. But more than anything, too many consumers are ignorant of how and why news appears as it does. That’s because news organizations, overall, have not made the effort to communicate with their audiences about these things.

Nearly 20 years ago, I represented a regional newspaper trying to emerge from a crippling labor dispute. Every other week, we organized a breakfast meeting of community members, designed to increase understanding and solicit feedback. The publisher and editors would explain how the news gets made and, based on watching eyes light up and heads nod, you could see the understanding grow over the course of an hour.

“On op-ed. Opposite the editorial page. Oh.”

But thanks to cost cutting and other factors, “customer engagement” has largely been reduced to the cesspool of the comments section.

I can’t pretend how to prescribe a solution for media financial challenges. But a commitment to some PR fundamentals could help reverse at least some of the trust issues between news organizations and their audiences, many of which are rooted simply in confusion.