Monday, April 9, 2012

Don't ask. Don't tell.

There was a big brouhaha last week in Milwaukee. It exposed the realities of achieving the journalistic ideal of "objective" news reporting. It shook management at local broadcast news organizations to their core. It threatened the reputation they've long cultivated for providing "unbiased" news reporting and endangered the trust relationship with listeners and viewers.

All the noise was about the revelation that staffers in the newsrooms of each of Milwaukee's local broadcast news organizations had signed petitions to recall Wisconsin's governor. Talk about a big oops if you're trying to maintain a reputation for "unbiased" reporting.

Management went into immediate damage control mode. Here's a sampling of their responses:

 "Until they (those involved) leave the station, they are not going to be allowed to cover anything related to Scott Walker (the governor)."

 "We want you to know that we consider this a serious issue. We are in the process of dealing with it internally. Our reputation of being a fair and unbiased news source is of paramount importance to us."

 "Station policy prohibits overt political activity. As journalists, our folks know that they must remain totally unbiased."

One television station reported that "many employees" defended the petition signing. They told management "it didn't feel like a political act, but instead felt similar to casting a vote". Management disagreed saying, "Voting is private. Signing a petition is not".

I get it. It's okay to vote because no one, including management, will know how you voted. It's not okay to sign a petition because your bias will be on display for everyone to see. This sounds like the news media version of "Don't ask. Don't tell." Hide your bias and your objectivity and ability to deliver unbiased reporting will not be questioned by management or news consumers.

Milwaukee isn't the only place where "Don't ask. Don't tell." is practiced. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, the policy seems to be alive and well in most major news organizations. It's likely a significant factor in the increasingly contentious relationship between news consumers and the news media. The latest Gallup poll reports a record 57% of Americans "have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly". Ouch.

Maybe it's time to get real about what it takes to deliver on the ideal and promise of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting. It requires reporters to somehow erase from their reporting any influence of their life experiences, personal feelings, and instinctive reasoning understanding that humans do not reason entirely from facts. We all view facts differently based on our life experiences and personal feelings. It's nearly impossible for reporters to eliminate the influence of these things from their reporting. It's not human.

Paul Harvey recognized the difficulty of achieving real objectivity and decided to acknowledge the problem when he chose the name for his news broadcasts. Here's how he explained it:

"I think anyone worth his salt is for or against certain things. It's going to come through if only in the selection of what goes on the air and what goes into the waste basket. So it seems more honest for me to call it 'Paul Harvey News and Comment'. That way listeners know they're getting their news from my perspective."

Paul Harvey decided it was more important to be trusted than attempt to achieve the nearly impossible journalistic ideal of being "objective". It worked pretty well for him. 

A recent poll conducted by Boston's Suffolk University revealed that Fox News and Bill O'Reilly are the most trusted names in news. It's clear from this study and other recent research that news consumers want to know exactly where their news source is coming from; transparency not "objectivity" equals trust. 

So, wouldn't it be better for reporters to reveal their biases rather than hide them? Wouldn't it be better for managers at major news organizations to recognize the biases of their reporters and make assignments accordingly with the goal of reporting from multiple perspectives that might come close to delivering on the ideal of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting?

Hiding your bias doesn't make it go away or enable you to be objective in your reporting. So, why do it?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Checklist for repeating content

Radio personalities often ask if they should repeat content during their shows. Repeating great stuff can help ensure that the content you present is consistently the best it can be. Repeating stuff just because you don't prepare enough content to fill your show is not a good idea or healthy habit to form.

Here are three simple questions I recommend personalities ask themselves to guide their decision:
  1. Is this my best work today?
  2. Is it better than the content I've prepped but not yet presented?
  3. Is it good enough and complex enough that listeners who've already heard it will appreciate hearing it again and, importantly, likely hear something "new" and interesting that they missed/didn't hear the first time around?

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    The untold story of the Rush Limbaugh advertiser boycott

    As Rush would say, folks, what's really going on here is a culture war in America. It's a battle for the soul of our country. There are signs everywhere, perhaps the most notable being the political logjam and overheated rhetoric in Washington DC. Rush Limbaugh's advertisers have become pawns in this culture war.

    The war is between those who believe in the America of our founding fathers and those who believe traditional American values and beliefs are old-fashioned, unrealistic, and out of step with "today's world". They believe our culture is in need of a radical transformation.

    Rush Limbaugh is a relentless, articulate, persuasive, and influential voice for traditional American values and beliefs. He is the inspiration and model for the cultural force that is conservative political talk radio. He was an inspiration for the creation of the Fox News Channel. He is a regular contributor to its programming. FNC's primary appeal is its traditional American worldview. FNC has considerably more viewers than all the other cable news channels combined. It's no wonder Rush has long been a target of those who want to dramatically change American culture.

    Last week, Rush served up the perfect opportunity for his cultural opponents to attack. Rush loves to illustrate absurdity by being absurd. Rush believes it's absurd for the government to mandate that all health insurance plans in America provide free birth control pills for women. You all know the story. He compared the mandate and women who take advantage of it to prostitution and likened mandate advocate Sandra Fluke to a "slut" and "prostitute".

    Most agree Rush accomplished his goal of being absurd. Many, including Rush, feel he went too far with his choice of labels for Sandra Fluke. Rush publicly apologized to Ms. Fluke. I don't want to defend Rush's illustration and choice of words or debate the sincerity of his apology or the propriety of the birth control pill mandate. I want to talk about the protests and threat to boycott Rush's advertisers that ensued.

    Some of the protests were organic and sincere. Why wouldn't people be upset when they hear about Rush likening an attractive young single woman he doesn't know to a "slut" and "prostitute"? However, most people would not take the next step and demand that he be fired or taken off the air permanently and threaten to boycott his advertisers. Make no mistake, this level of protest was well planned and organized by Rush's opponents in the culture war. They want his voice silenced. They want him gone. They'll do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. Unfortunately, Rush gave them some wonderful tools.

    The words "slut" and "prostitute" Rush attached to Sandra Fluke taken out of context by his culture war opponents made it easy to paint Rush as a despicable villain in e-mails, Facebook posts, and Tweets. Many of these digital arrows were aimed at Rush's advertisers and threatened a boycott of their products and services if they continued to be advertised on the Rush Limbaugh Show. This was no accident

    Rush's opponents in the cultural war understood exactly what they were doing. They know most advertisers will do anything to avoid controversy. They knew Rush's words were all they needed to create a "viral" firestorm of protest on social media that would generate high-level news media attention and scare the hell out of Rush's advertisers. They recognized a prime opportunity to deal a lethal blow to Rush and his show. So far, it appears they've inflicted some significant pain on Rush with collateral damage on all talk radio and free speech.

    Social media and the Internet are wonderful tools for spreading information and ideas. They're also great tools for intimidation, spreading misinformation, and making vocal well organized minorities look like majorities. Most people don't want to silence Rush Limbaugh or anyone else exercising his right to free speech. The vast majority of people aren't going to stop purchasing products and services they need and happily use because they're advertised on the Rush Limbaugh program, certainly not his listeners.

    There is lots of research on boycotts like the one promoted by Rush's opponents in the culture war. They seldom, if ever, affect the sale of products and services because the boycott isn't about the advertiser and his products or services. If carried out, these boycotts actually punish the very people who are doing the boycotting if they are truly regular satisfied users of the products and services.

    Sadly, Rush's advertisers have become pawns in America's culture war. They succumbed to a false threat created by a small vocal minority with a hidden agenda.  The irony here is that this is probably the best time in years to advertise on the Rush Limbaugh program . I suspect his ratings have increased markedly as a result of this controversy. The attacks on Rush have likely galvanized his fans and supporters and motivated them to support his advertisers.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    Knowledge and experience can be dangerous

    Children are fearless and naturally curious. They imagine and are open to endless possibilities. They never consider or worry about what can't be done. Every child is an artist and truly creative, but then things begin to change. Fear sets in. Ideas stop flowing.

    So, what happens? We lose something that removes fear, fuels curiosity and powers the imagination and creativity of every child. We lose our naïveté and its effect on what we think and do. Bill Atkinson, one of Apple's super designers and programmers, gained this insight on his successful quest to meet Steve Jobs’ seemingly unrealistic expectations for the Apple Lisa computer. "I got a feeling for the empowering aspect of naïveté. Because I didn't know it couldn't be done, I was enabled to do it."

    When you find yourself thinking something can't be done, try a little naïveté. Set aside your experience and what you think you know. Sometimes knowledge and experience can be dangerous to your creativity.

    By the way, the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson is full of inspiration and wisdom for creatives.