FAIRNESS and FACTS: GOOD WEAPONS WHEN UNDER ATTACK

The number one question I’ve been asked this year:  What should a local TV station do to sustain and grow its credibility in light of the attacks on the news media?

The question is referring mostly to marketing, but news coverage is, and should be, part of the mix.

The second question, asked in tandem:  Or, should we do anything at all?

Doing nothing is an option—especially if doing something exudes a Shakespearean sense that we “…doth protest too much.”  That we’re denying something so adamantly, we might be guilty. No “protest” or apology is necessary for fair, factual reporting, no matter who tries to bully you.

Inversely, doing something—but using bad word choices in promos, like “fake news”—risks dragging local news into a pool of media to which it need not belong.

  • Research, including SmithGeiger and Pew, shows local TV news is more credible than national TV news, more trustworthy and less biased.
  • If we use pejorative terms directed at national media in our copy—and deny we’re fake news—it forces unnecessary questions about whether, in fact, we could be capable of “fake news.”

LOCAL NOT IMMUNE:  National journalists take more heat—but local news is in the crosshairs, too.  Ask any local reporter about the bad feedback they get on a political story—and they cringe.  Ask managers at local TV stations what they worry about lately—and it’s about unnecessarily angering partisan viewers (on either side) and sending them off to watch their favorite, partisan cable news.

The word that many local stations circle back to—at times like these—is TRUST.  It certainly is a safe term and/or an entire promo especially for a station’s most loyal viewers.

However, TRUST is a by-product of all the things that lead up to it—which can be overlooked.  Most stations would be better off focused on the path to TRUST, instead of suggesting the TRUST is already in place.

The words that come to mind on this path are: FAIRNESS AND FACTS.

Why the emphasis on these two words?

FAIRNESS bypasses “bias”—the word the public likes to use in a very broad sense to criticize reporting they believe is unfair.  Journalists need to be more precise in language; we’re stuck with bias. Everyone has a bias—based on where they’re from, what they’ve heard, and experienced.  The goal is to shed those biases and commit to being fair—regardless of how you feel.

  • We cover what people believe—regardless of what we believe.
  • We find nothing wrong with public protests about President, nor anything wrong with many America’s attraction to President Trump.  We cover both.
  • Journalists understand the pains of the populace—and the perception of some they are being left out, no matter what their politics.

There are three parts to FAIRNESS:

  1. Recognizing there are multiple perspectives to an issue.
  2. Melding those perspectives into a single story.
  3. Calibrating the mix of perspectives—knowing not every story will be 50/50.

FAIRNESS RECOMMENDATION: People working in and around TV newsrooms should avoid conversations about their own political points of view—and just focus on covering a story fairly. When personal points of view go on display in newsrooms, it hinders fairness—because people are afraid to say things that might upset someone politically.

FACTS are real, not “alternative.”  Facts can be the most settling resolve to a restless audience. 

Case in point:

In a TV market where FOX NEWS had higher ratings than the networks during the Inaugural, a local station set out last week to cover the issues created by President Trump’s executive order on immigration. 

  • The news director blatantly pointed to the need for factual reporting—and one of the key stories that day highlighted how many terror suspects originated from the 7 countries in the travel ban vs. how many terror suspect originated from countries not included.  
  • The facts showed that very few terror suspects, charged since 2001, came from the 7 countries which a vast majority came from countries not included like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

We expected there’d be big viewer pushback from ardent supporters of the President—but it turned out there was very little negative feedback.  The facts mattered.

SUGGESTION: It is a good time to be transparent about your commitment to FACTUAL REPORTING—certainly in the way you report, write, and showcase stories. “We know this issue has upset a lot of people, so today we looked in the key FACTS about______”  If the commitment to facts is pronounced enough in the newscasts and on digital platforms, it then becomes ripe for use in image and topical promotion.  But execute it before promoting it.

BOTTOM LINE:  Whether you do something or nothing in marketing to bolster your credibility, the stance we take in local newsrooms about fairness and facts will be the salvation to ongoing credibility.  Think of any viewer—regardless of political affiliation—calling or writing us to complain about a story.  We can stand tall, absorb their emotions, and defend our professions by saying here’s why we thought this story was fair and here’s what we know about the facts.