When I started my PR career in the mid-80s, I believed that most reporters tried to be fair and objective, in spite of their personal feelings. I can no longer say that’s the case.
While media bias has always been an issue that plagued politicians, business leaders, clergy and others, the problem seems to have gotten exponentially worse—to the point where much of the national media in particular have become advocates for a particular worldview, focusing their efforts on shaping news rather than reporting it.
Not surprisingly, a recent Gallup survey found that distrust in the media has hit a new high, “with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”
And no wonder—the bias is hard to miss. Rush Limbaugh has frequently played sound bites from one independent media outlet after another repeating the same word or phrase when discussing a person or event, making it embarrassingly clear that there was discussion among these reporters about how to slant their coverage.
There was a time when editors could be shamed into taking corrective action when a reporter’s bias became too obvious, but generating shame is getting harder and harder to do. Many of today’s national reporters and editors have an agenda, and promoting that agenda is far more important to them than practicing integrity in their craft.
The bias in this year’s election campaign has been the worst I’ve ever seen. One of numerous examples I could site was a Republican debate in which George Stefanolopous, out of the blue, raised the issue with Mitt Romney of denying women contraceptives. Romney appeared to be caught off guard and simply indicted that he was not advocating that at all—it hadn’t even been discussed. It was, in fact, a “when did you stop beating your wife” set-up question from the start.
The spin was became “Romney was talking about banning contraceptives,” and the next thing you know there’s a ridiculous and absolutely phony charge of a Republican “War on Women.” But in the world of politics and PR, once you’re on the defensive with such a volatile issue it’s hard to recover quickly. It’s a good example of how fundamentally deceptive and dishonest the news media can be, knowingly framing an issue in a manner that has no grounding in reality.
Another less obvious bias is in choosing what to report and emphasize, and what to downplay or ignore altogether. But that’s a topic for another post.
Conservative blogs, The Wall Street Journal and talk radio help balance the liberal bias of national print outlets and networks. In my opinion, FOX is the most fair and even-handed TV network in terms of presenting both sides impartially. Sure, FOX has plenty of conservative commentators, along with quite a few liberal commentators, and viewers know where they’re coming from. But when it’s time to report news rather than comment on it, FOX does a pretty good job overall. Not perfect, mind you, but it’s the only national TV news I trust.
Media bias can be just as big a problem for ad agencies and their clients, as well as for businesses of all sizes. So how should a PR person representing an agency or business navigate in this environment, especially when representing an issue or cause that runs counter to the philosophy of the dominant media?
There are no easy answers to dealing with media bias, but here are six suggestions that I’ve found helpful:
First, understand the reality of the situation. If you are a conservative, you’re not going to get a fair shake among much of the national media. If you’re a liberal, certain national talk radio hosts will interrupt you repeatedly and not give you much time to make your case. Knowing what you’re up against is important to get you prepared and keep you from being caught off guard.
Second, avoid dealing with the worst offenders. I don’t care who it is, or how big a name or reputation the media person has, if he or she is blatantly dishonest and hostile, or won’t give you a fair opportunity to make your point, why allow yourself (or your boss) to be interviewed by that person? You know going in that the entire interview is going to be about trying to make you look bad. Contrary to what P.T. Barnum believed, in most cases no publicity is better than bad publicity. There are plenty of other ways to get a message out today.
Third, don’t be afraid to be a little feisty and turn the tables when appropriate. Newt Gingrich is masterful at this, and a lot of liberals fear him because they know he’s not afraid to mix it up with them on the issues, and that he’ll call them out publicly when they lie or distort the truth. Gingrich also knows how to get his point across and not allow the interviewer to constantly interrupt or cut him off before he’s finished. At the same time, you never want to lose your cool no matter how provocative a question or statement you get hit with. Controlled indignation can be very powerful.
Fourth, recognize that complex issues are going to get reduced to a sound bite or two. That’s unfortunate, but it’s reality. Learn how to play the game and get your point across quickly, clearly and in a way that’s memorable.
Fifth, if you become the victim of a media hit, get the truth out quickly. Press release distribution services, the Internet, advertising and interviews with fair-minded reporters can help get corrective information out to counter lies and misrepresentations. But you must not wait too long and let the message spread too far unchallenged; otherwise, you’ll be playing on defense for some time to come.
Sixth, if you make a mistake, or say something you regret, don’t wait to apologize and correct yourself; do so immediately. We all say things we wish we had phrased differently or not said at all. The worst thing to do is defend something like that and then later, after much damage has been done, come back and apologize. It’s far better to acknowledge the error up front and move on.
And keep in mind that if you’re a conservative, any misstatement or error you make is going to be magnified and repeated by the media much more than if you are a liberal. It’s the way things are.
Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to advertising agencies and businesses.