Calling the emporer on his clothes: Farmer nails it on today’s news coverage

July 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm 2 comments

Call me old-school, but the most exciting thing in Sunday’s Star Ledger (other than the fact that the Royals beat the Yankees) was John Farmer’s column about today’s political news coverage.

 He used the circus triggered by media that failed to double check a conservative blogger’s very special editing of a passionate speech by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official as a news peg.  Shirley Sherrod’s address carried a powerful message – if you took the time to hear the whole thing. Unfortunately, nobody – even her employer – bothered to double check what the blogger accused her of saying, resulting in some very well-publicized embarrassment.

Farmer talks about the evils of taking things at face value and how that has impacted what passes for news these days. When I became a reporter in the 1970s, I was taught about those same dangers. Farmer’s column, which you can read by clicking here, remembers the days when no self-respecting reporter would use a source’s information without double-checking the info. Nor would he or she use his or her news space or air time (no Web back then…ah, good old days) to create coverage that was deliberately slanted toward one position or another, unless the piece was labeled commentary. And we also understood that commentaries – and falsifying information –could make our jobs difficult later.

Farmer’s point is that if journalists aren’t going to exercise any scrutiny or healthy cynicism when they’re given information, especially stuff that grabs eyeballs and supports whatever position they want, then consumers of news will have to be cynical. To me, a firm believer in the role of journalism in keeping our democracy going, it’s a return to the yellow journalism or the post-Revolutionary War era, when newspapers were overtly supported by political parties.

Wonderful commentary, right? But I’m really thinking about the impact of this new journalistic style on those of us in public relations. We’re up against a 24/7 news cycle (and a million vendors who want to charge us to tell us how to cope with it). That would be enough of a challenge. But today, people will just as easily believe a story that puts our clients in a bad light, even if it’s 100 percent false and concocted and spread by someone with a definite axe to grind. And while doing well by doing good is more important than ever, it’s not enough. Stir in the reduced resources most of us have these days, and we face challenges that we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

How we deal with this situation is what makes public relations different today than it was not so many years ago. A press and a public that regarded what they’re told with a little cynicism and an open mind would be helpful. Since that’s not going to happen, I figure we need to take the high road on behalf of our clients. We need to monitor what’s being said about us and the industries we represent. We need to know who’s saying what understand the axe they’re grinding. We need to use truth and good citizenship to make the organizations we represent defendable if not unassailable…and if a company doesn’t want to engage in good citizenship, we need to walk away.

It’s not much of an answer. And the way things move these days, by the time we figure out a better one, the question probably would change.  

Anyway that’s my take. What’s yours?


Entry filed under: Dealing with social media, Ethics in Public Relations, reputation. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

My son, the Blogger Troubled companies don’t have a PR problem. They have something much worse


  • 1. Garo Hovnanian  |  July 26, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Doug, you nailed it. There is so much information that consumers see everyday. So we (speaking as a consumer) look to news sources, blogs, individuals’ recommendations (e.g. Amazon) and even twitter personalities (who can be paid to tweet but we don’t care), to help us filter out the good/bad. There are just too many options to explore them all, we need heuristics to get to the end… “just tell me which GPS system is the best.”
    Inherently, those in the know are more powerful than those who want to know. The degree of leverage, then, is a question of ethics & professional integrity. Have the standards of integrity fallen because of competition, dilution of the field, answering to stock holders? What do you think?

  • 2. Suzanne MacDowell  |  August 5, 2010 at 7:45 am

    Hi Doug, Great Commentary! Honestly, I have stopped watching and reading the ‘news’ entirely. It’s not news, it’s sensationalism and it’s not even true most of the time! Heck, I didn’t even know Chelsea Clinton was getting married!



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