Hold On. Where are the Facts Ma’am?

How can we trust media when they get the facts wrong and don’t use subject matter experts?

Dragnet’s Jack Webb said it best, ‘All We Want Are The Facts.’ A simple question based on extracting the truth while at the same time building trust. Yes, the 50’s was a completely different time. Attaining the truth was a regular non-occurrence due to a cold war instilling a culture of neurosis and paranoia in both entertainment and news broadcasting. Surely fifty odds years later we have broken down those barriers and are getting our news from a trustworthy source. Right?

It sure doesn’t look that way.

The recent CNN reporting of a ‘Top Secret Ebola Serum Given to U.S. Patients’ piece represents an unfortunate example of how ‘scoop’ trumps ethics in news broadcasting. You will notice the lead uses a term – ‘top secret.’ Top secret eh… Are they saying that only U.S. patients are able to use this serum? A CIA and M6 backed regime are transporting it now as we watch?

Here we go again…

In media planning we all strive to move away from the use of sensational jargon when writing our headlines. In this case not essentially an ethical misstep, but certainly an issue management faux pas. Using an exclusive and emotional term as ‘top secret’ in a highly apprehensive story as the Ebola crisis in Africa, was seen by many, most prolifically medical experts, as irresponsible, sensational and not looking at the facts.

Reuters’ health expert Andrew M. Seaman, quickly dispatched a tweet with the headline: Experimental Not Equal to Secret in an attempt to inject professional credibility and reduce panic to CNN’s story.

The question arises for media experts to ask,

‘Is the practice of using sensational language ethical and acceptable in news reporting?’

In this example, does the medical community view broadcast ethics through a finer lens than mainstream media? Is that important?

You bet it is. It should be common practice to follow the medical example when writing highly sensitive and emotive stories. You would be hard pressed to find a doctor readily using phrasing as ‘top secret’ in their report as it delivers a message of secrecy, exclusivity and privilege. Doctors are the stanchest advocates for equal access to cures and remedies and actively support a universal application to treating maladies, illnesses et al. Certainly not something akin to top secret.

At the end of the day, it’s all about selling advertising time on the broadcast. We get this, but at what cost to the public?

Does this mean mainstream news broadcasting will continue to circumvent media relations’ best practices as using real facts and subject matter experts to attain ratings?

In media relations, we are often tasked to check our facts not once, but twice, and to always have an expert ready to back them up. No expert to corroborate the facts. No interview. This rings true in all stories that are based in subject matters needing the facts checked and validated by industry experts. After all, as communications professionals it is our credibility on the line, right?

Let’s look at the other major U.S. news network, Fox; recognized for its conservative editorial and lip service to the far right. Fox has been caught recently not fact checking or to that matter, bringing in experts to corroborate their editorial scripting. In punditfact.com Fox News is cited many times for their on-air talent making unfounded and sometime ridiculous statements. Ludicrous yes, but sad in the fact that a whole whack of folks watching them think what the talent is saying is gospel.

Has all this unethical news reporting hurt the trust scores at the major networks?

CNN’s credibility in light of recent gaffs still rings in with a remarkable 60% honest and reliable and thereby trusted compared to Fox at 60% false or partially false. Edelman’s 2014 Trust Barometer has mainstream media broadcast sitting at 65% trusted. Conversely, most western nations range at a lower rate of trust compared to last year.

So there you have it. Just the facts. As blogged about in ‘Who Says News is Dead’ broadcast news is far from going the way of the dodo but at a level much lower than before.

Joe Friday knew that truth has the ability to show itself when the facts are clearly presented. Let’s hope the producers of major news gathering affiliates will somehow have the foresight to catch Joe Friday one late night and hear those essential words in his most famous speech: ‘A quirk in the Law.’

John K. Bromley


2 thoughts on “Hold On. Where are the Facts Ma’am?

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