A recent poll by the Media Insight Project, a partnership of The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute, surveyed Americans about their trust in the media.
Pardon the pun, but the news wasn’t good.
Only 6 percent of people said they had a lot of confidence in the media, which was roughly on par with Congress, an institution known for its low marks. In terms of what drove people’s trust, accuracy was the most important factor with 85 percent of of respondents saying that it’s extremely or very important to get the facts right. Interestingly, just behind accuracy was “completeness,” meaning that media coverage provides “all the important news and information.”
In our experience, completeness is a component of accuracy. It’s not enough simply to report something that’s technically factual. If you don’t provide all the relevant information, the result can be a portrayal in a false light, which is just as irresponsible and misleading as including outright false information. For example, you read in a story, “Susan broke the eggs.” You might walk away with the negative perception that she dropped the carton and made a mess. However, if it says, “Susan broke the eggs and folded them into the cake batter,” then you have a better, fairer understanding of what she was doing.
The gap between the value that survey respondents placed on factual accuracy and completeness and the low confidence people have in the media is not a surprise. We have seen plenty of high-profile betrayals of these tenets, such as the bad press around Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape story or the numerous controversies surrounding the reporting of NBC’s Brian Williams. At Hillenby, we see the broadcast and publication of false information or information lacking critical context at an alarming rate in the work we do. It also seems to impact businesses of all different sizes and industries and across a range of issues, from frivolous litigation to divestment efforts to social responsibility.
So, to invoke our firm’s tagline, how can we help the truth break through when faced with challenges like negative press coverage and biased reporters?
The strategy can be divided into what is done prior to and following a media report running. In terms of what you can do before, we did a case study about fighting back against an investigative hit piece that highlights some of the ways you can push for ensure factual accuracy on the front end:
- Open Communication: Maintain regular contact with the news outlet to ensure you are gathering as much information as possible. Make sure every interaction is in writing, even following up on phone calls with recap emails to preserve a record of what was discussed. This written record is important should you need to seek corrections to the piece after the fact.
- Shared Interest: Appeal to the shared interest of the reporter in presenting a factually accurate piece to her readers or viewers. Explain that you want to help her get it right so you don’t have to seek corrections afterward, indicating that you won’t hesitate to address any issues with the final product.
- Information Transparency: If a news outlet is slow to produce information about the story or is vague in what is provided, copy the appropriate editorial leadership and legal counsel to underscore the seriousness of your request and stress the need to be provided complete information.
- Legal Risk: Incorporate language into your correspondence that introduces the concept of legal risk. This will, again, underscore the seriousness with which you are prepared to defend the factual accuracy of the piece. It’s important to note that bringing legal action against a media outlet should always be a last resort for a number of reasons, but foreshadowing the possibility can instill a higher level of accountability in the reporting process.
- Detailed Responses: In many instances, the instinct for communications professionals is to provide media responses in concise, quotable sound bites. However, there is an appropriate time for detailed responses that emphasize the amount of evidence you have to back up your claims.
At times – despite every effort to be proactive – a piece may still run containing false information or portraying your company in a false light. The Media Insight Project polling shows how critical it is to aggressively seek corrections and clarifications from news outlets in these instances. It’s not only important for maintaining an accurate public record for your company, which impacts your overall corporate reputation, but it will also call into question the trust that readers, viewers or listeners have in the piece and what it says about your business.
- Appeal to Leadership: When seeking corrections, appeal to editorial leadership rather than the reporter, as this will typically elevate the issue more quickly. You can also reach out to leadership on more neutral ground, as the reporter may be emotionally invested in avoiding correction. It also is worthwhile to consider how you can escalate your request even higher within the organization if you’re not able to secure the correction or clarification you’re looking for with your initial contact.
- Collaborative Tone: As with the pre-story outreach, start with a tone that appeals to the shared interest in ensuring factual accuracy for readers. Taking this tone will also provide the opportunity to demonstrate to the leadership that you are interested in working toward common goals rather than antagonistically, hopefully enlisting him or her as an ally in your efforts.
- Legal Risk: In another element pulled from the pre-story outreach, incorporating language that introduces the idea of legal risk can underscore the seriousness with which you are prepared to seek correction or clarification. Again, we always see legal action as a last resort, but introducing the concept can help bring a level of seriousness to the effort.
What we ultimately learn from this polling data is that truth matters deeply to people, but it’s in short supply in the current media environment. This bleeds over into how companies are portrayed and perceived, and it makes it incumbent upon communicators to take a more active role in defending and promoting truth, ultimately resetting harmful conversations and driving new ones powerfully forward.