Media's rush to judge corporations badly

I’ve been in corporate public relations for a long time, long enough to feel, like many others, that there is sometimes a predisposition on the part of the news media — I won’t call it a bias, just a lack of understanding, or sometimes even a lack of common sense — but a desire to believe that consumers have valid claims all the time.

It is true that sometimes companies have poor management oversight of their operations, or that they are dirty places, or they deliberately overlook problems. But these things are not really the daily occurrences that you might think they are.

Look at the rush to put Anna Ayala on national network morning news shows with her claim that she found a human fingertip in a bowl of chili at Wendy’s. She gets to tell her story, completely trash a perfectly reputable company in the national press, and absolutely no one in the media waited to see if this outrageous story was even verifiable.

And in case you didn’t see the follow-up report, she’s now been arrested for concocting the story. Meanwhile, food sales were off so badly at the store she accused of selling the chili, that they actually had to lay off employees.

The pressure for ratings and “eyeballs” from the audience is so intense that it doesn’t even matter to the media to verify the claim before reporting it. In the rush to get this bizarre and ratings-pumping story on the air, it doesn’t matter how many minimum wage earning single parents might be thrown out of work.

There’s no time to think about the long term consequences, and there’s no time to even consider how improbable the claim might be. Why isn’t the media reserving a little bit of the skepticism they apply to the corporations in these stories for the people bringing the stories to them?

Now, the journalists will say, “Hey, we’ve reported accurately what the woman SAID happened, so we have no responsibility for the fact that she made up the story and has a history of alleging corporate misconduct.” I don’t really buy that.

When I was a radio news reporter in the late 1970s, I was working on the night they arrested some poor sap as a suspect in the famous Hillside Strangler case in California. They announced his name, and distributed his mug shot to the wire services. By 6 am Eastern time, they had released him — he simply wasn’t guilty. But every morning newspaper in the country published his name and photo as a suspect. I always was glad that I did not use the story on my radio newscasts.

Sure, you can say that it is news when someone is arrested as s suspect, but once you name that person, you can’t unring the bell. So too for allegations against a restaurant or a convenience store that later prove to be untrue.

There used to be a time when reporters were supposed to try to figure out if the story they were being told was at least credible before publishing it. It reminds me of the time when Newsweek was sold a forged set of alleged Hitler diaries, published a big cover story about it, and then when it was exposed as a fraud, excused themselves in a later article by saying “it almost doesn’t matter if they are real.” Come on, folks.

The editors who appear on panels at conferences gnash their teeth over the fact that reader surveys indicate an increasing percentage of readers who believe that newspapers make up the news.

That’s not really fair, but it sure seems like an increasing number of people INTERVIEWED by the news media are making things up. And the longer the media go on accepting this nonsense at face value, reporting what people say without even making an effort at finding out if it’s true, the more skeptical their readers will become.

2 Comments on Media's rush to judge corporations badly

  1. Steve: Your comment……the journalists will say, “Hey, we’ve reported accurately what the woman SAID happened, so we have no responsibility for the fact that she made up the story and has a history of alleging corporate misconduct.” I don’t really buy that.is interesting in light of what Tom Rosenstiel, vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, was quoted as saying on BusinessWeek’s blog: “Increasingly the role of journalists will shift from being a gatekeeper to being an authenticator and referee.”

  2. Thanks to pete for pointing out the Rosenstiel comment. I guess I wonder if “gatekeeper” was the traditional role of the journalist. I always thought it was about trying to determine what story was true. Rosenstiel seems to be thinking of that old parody version of the New York Times’ motto, “All the news that fits, we print.”

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