Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why Would Anyone Talk to a Reporter Today?

I get that question a lot. Usually it comes when I'm conducting a media training session, teaching people how to talk with reporters. The question is getting harder to answer.

Multiple major media outlets (CNN, Boston Globe, AP) reported that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombings when no such arrest had been made. The New York Post wrongfully identified two people from a surveillance photo as suspects when they weren't. The paper also reported 12 fatalities early on, even though the number was three.

These types of mistakes are partly the nature of breaking news. Sam Donaldson wrote in a book many years ago that 50% of the information during a breaking story is usually wrong. Sam never tells us which 50% that is. Even knowing that the information in a breaking story changes, the media's initial coverage of Boston was an embarrassment to the profession.

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley weighed in recently with a speech in which he says journalism's "house is on fire" and "we're getting the big stories wrong, over and over again."



According to Gallup, 60% of the American public has little or no trust in news media. Audiences and readership have been declining, as trust in media has been eroding. In the same survey, 30% of people surveyed told pollsters they had abandoned a media outlet because it no longer provided information they found useful.

I realize there is a big dose of self-interest in this post. I make my living teaching people to communicate with journalists. That doesn't mean the three reasons below are less valid. There is still value in talking to reporters.

Mainstream media is the feedstock for social media. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has, for the last decade, issued a State of the News Media report. The 2013 report shows that 15% of adults get most of their news through their social networks. The big number is that more than three-quarters (77%) of those people follow links to full news stories. What this tells us is that even those people who rely on social media to be informed, will still go to mainstream media to get a more complete picture of stories that are important to them.

Social media is perceived as less credible than traditional media. 
A study in Communication Quarterly showed that tweets from The New York Times, were viewed less credibly than either short or long online stories from The Times even though all three contained the same information. While this is true now, it is likely to shift as social media becomes even more ingrained in our daily lives.

Mainstream media is more accountable than social media. It's hard not to feel as though mainstream media are making more mistakes and caring less about making them. However, most mainstream outlets will correct faulty stories. Also, information on social networks is not often indexed for public search engines and, therefore, is of little value beyond the moment. That doesn't mean you stay out of social media in a crisis; just as mainstream media content drives social media use, the reverse is also true. The website Breaking News has a whitelist of more than 300 mainstream media Twitter feeds that pop up immediately in front of its editors. The site describes it as the largest news-tipping network on Twitter.

There you have it. Three reasons why talking to a reporter is still valuable. But what of the media? Any advice for them? Sure, two words.

Suck less.

Bill Salvin

44 comments:

  1. Joe Zingher (via LinkedIn)May 20, 2013 at 7:49 AM

    There's really no choice if you have something you want to get out to the world.

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  2. Joe, thanks for reading and commenting. My concern is that what you say is true now, but it's less so than when I was a reporter. How things are now is not how they will always be. As trust keeps falling and mistakes keep being made, others will seek to fill in. Information isn't the issue, credibility is the issue. While people are getting accustomed to not trusting journalists, they will start trusting someone else. That my primary concern. I love great journalism and I want it to succeed.

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  3. Simon Cross (via LinkedIn)May 20, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    This is a huge subject. I'm trying to put together a documentary pitch or screenplay looking at the collapse of trust in journalism. My own experience as a video reporter is that at more and demos I cover, protestors consider me as much 'the enemy' as the riot police they are opposing and no longer see me as a trusted observer who will report what is happening as objectively as possible. So far I've only had to deal with threats and insults, but quite a few colleagues have been beaten up or had equipment smashed. I love great journalism too and find the sitaution deeply saddening and worrying. But I agree with Bill that we clearly have to get to grips with the issue of credibility.

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  4. Simon, that is a fascinating point regarding people at protests viewing media as "the enemy." That is a huge and sad change. I really appreciate you taking the time to read the post and to comment here.

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  5. Shirley Lind (via Facebook)May 20, 2013 at 7:55 AM

    Any thoughts on how the majority of media outlets are owned by just a few corporations?

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  6. Shirley, thanks for reading! Common ownership is less of an issue than is common formatting. For example, I can see local news that is "Live, Local, Latebreaking" in almost any major or medium size city in the US. If it worked in Jacksonville, it will work in Louisville, right? I think that is one of the things behind the number of people who abandon an outlet because it no longer provides information they need.

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  7. Joe Zingher (via LinkedIn)May 20, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    I have the feeling you're mistrusted because you don't follow up on things that seem obviously newsworthy to us, but you find it unreliable. I am a retired lawyer. I understand the law of evidence pretty well. I had a reporter tell me that journalists have a higher standard than that. Which is insane because I can send a man to his death based upon the reliability of the evidence that follows that law. Since any journalist who followed the law of evidence in putting together his or her report would be protected in court. I wonder what the source of this "higher standard" really is. Turning up my paranoia meter, I assume that corporations know the standards very well and since they know how to follow those standards, they influence journalism schools to teach those standards instead of the laws of evidence. Journalism schools have to teach the standards that their corporate donors/ potential employers want or else they don't get hired.

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  8. Fay Lim (via LinkedIn)May 20, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    As a former journalist and now a marketing communicator on the other side of the fence, it is truly sad to have gone into the journalism profession in hopes of sharing open information to the public and now find that the young don't trust the media. They have other sources and know how various media are bias and controlled my management, advertisers, lobbyist, etc. I'm not sure what the approach would be to begin building that respect and trust, but as baby boomers who taught the next generation to not trust authority, we are now that generation in authority.

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  9. I left journalism because I couldn't afford to live on the salary I made at a medium-sized newspaper. So I'm not surprised at a general decline in quality. Journalists are degreed professionals that often earn less than, well, every other profession. Too much stress for too little pay. Why would any talented young journalists even consider entering the field today?

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  10. Fay, that's a great insight. Sort of falls into the "reap what you sow" category. What is news today would have gotten me smacked down in an editorial meeting when I was a reporter in the late 80s and early 90s. Maybe we're in a time similar to the late 60s where established sources of trusted information are no longer trusted. We trust our friends. Our friends are now on social media. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Fay. I really appreciate it.

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  11. Keith, thanks for reading. I felt the same way when I left journalism. I had a young family and the prospect of low salary where I wanted to live or jumping around to different jobs to get a few more $$ seemed to be the choice if I stayed in the profession.

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  12. Steven Lyew (via Facebook)May 20, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    this is a case where competition does not bring about positive change.

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  13. Competition can make people journalism better, but it takes discipline that seems to be lacking today. Thanks for reading, I appreciate it.

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  14. Steve Lyew (via Facebook)May 20, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    Unfortunately the signal to noise ratio brought about by citizen reporting/blogs/twitter/reddit/4chan/facebook is putting unneeded pressure on media outlets to try and ingest information quickly and make reactive, snap judgements based on the amount of people "verifying" (read: reposting) the same speculative, and oftentimes, most sensational, bits of information. and then there's the 'troll' factor... Having worked in this biz for 18 years, i can honestly say the internet has helped as much as it has hurt honest journalism.

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  15. Steve great point. When I was in the biz, we at least had tie to get in the truck and get to the scene to gather information for a report. Now, we'd have tons of information to sift through before we've left the building. Thanks so much for commenting.

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  16. De Loris "Pete" DeLozier (via LinkedIn)May 20, 2013 at 1:38 PM

    Just anyone shouldn't talk to a reporter. Talking to a reporter is a specialized field that takes a special person to do or coach the person that needs to respond. Each reporter is different, but it is not difficult when the core responses, truths and non-responses or that question cannot be answered at this time is kept solid--or I will check on that and get back to you. Keep a good working relationship with reporters and it becomes much easier to have a mutual respect--and it can be obtained. It takes a lot of work but it is well worth it. NEVER SPEAK OFF-THE-RECORD TO A REPORTER! That's suicide.

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  17. Pete, that is a great point. You need to be trained to do this well, just like any business skill. Off the record is a recipe for disaster. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting.

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  18. Uchenna Izundu (via LinkedIn)May 21, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    There is definitely some truth in that observation Fay. Moreover, the sources of information have multiplied. When you were a reporter Bill, perhaps it was fair to say it was friends and family who were perceived as credible sources of information and then the main media - whether that was broadcast or print. Now with so many businesses operating in that space and the proliferation of sources that you can sign up for and the fact that we, as individuals, can communicate directly with influencers through social media, it's unsurprising that reporters would fall lower in the food chain.

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  19. I appreciate your comment Uchenna. There were fewer sources when I was a journalist and that's a good point. What concerns me is that some in journalism have been slow to adapt to the new reality and others have adopted some of the less desirable traits of non-credible online sources. Thanks for reading!

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  20. Richard Rostron (via LinkedIn)May 21, 2013 at 7:24 AM

    Bill, I agree with your assessment of the problem - a focus on profit over ethics in the field of journalism. I interviewed a client the other day, a doctor who spoke of the struggle between patient's interest and profit. As he put it, every medical practitioner and health care system exists, in regards to this question, on a gradient - some are more focused on the patient, some more so on profit. This is true in virtually any profession. As for the legal profession, I believe they are more inclined to protect the image of the profession than to protect individuals from bad or unethical lawyers. Still, you're right, they are, to some extent, policing themselves. The media seems even to have abandoned that effort.

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  21. Richard, thank you so much for your comment. There does seem to be a lack of accountability in journalism. I've worked stories as a spokesman and have pointed out clear errors to journalists and had them tell me, "well, we think we're right, so we're not going to change the story." This despite showing them factual errors and omissions that made their story demonstrably false. Until they can get to the point where they can say, "we were wrong on that story and we're sorry," they will continue to lose trust.

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  22. Richard Rostron (via LinkedIn)May 21, 2013 at 7:27 AM

    Our journalism schools have taught journalists that, somehow, they can double as activist for 'the good cause,' in fact, that they have a responsibility to do so. Readers/viewers don't have to be consciously aware of this for it to have an effect on their perception of the news. They intrinsically know that the media is now taking sides and, once again, without even thinking about it, they realize that the media isn't even striving for an unbiased approach. Yes, as Uchenna points out, they have other resources from which to attain their news but, if the 'traditional' media was committed to the highest standards of journalism readers/viewers would quickly see the difference between an unedited/unfiltered story on the Internet and the quality of journalism from 'reliable' sources. In other words, as I see it, other sources of 'news' haven't so much taken the field as 'traditional' media has forfeited their role as watchdogs and those who honestly 'journal' the events in our society.

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  23. Richard what you point out here is really important. They've gone from presenting both sides of the story to presenting the argument for the side they deem to be correct (politically so or otherwise) and vilifying people of opposing views. Most people understand that true objectivity is a myth. Now, though we see many journalists not even making an attempt to be objective.

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  24. Darrell Todd Maurina (via LinkedIn)May 21, 2013 at 7:37 AM

    I would be interested in knowing more about what the reporter meant when he was talking to Joe Zingher. I can think of ways that comment about having a "higher standard" would make sense.

    Here's one example.

    Unlike criminal cases where standards of probable cause apply to police and prosecutors and "beyond a reasonable doubt" applies to judges and juries, all it takes to file a civil lawsuit is to pay the filing fee, and we **DO** need to have higher standards that that. I can think of situations where I might refuse to report things said in a civil lawsuit if I believed the allegations were nonsense, if reporting them would serve no public purpose, and if the story would do nothing but harm people's reputations for no good reason at all. On the other hand, I'm dealing with a case where allegations have been swirling for several years about government misconduct, and I told the people involved that I wouldn't report their accusations until or unless they filed the lawsuit they were threatening. Once they filed the lawsuit, I reported the claims in the lawsuit because there was a public purpose in reporting accusations against government agencies which somebody is willing to say under oath that they believe are true.

    Here's another.

    We can all think of "over the top" stuff done by tabloids that they can get away with when dealing with public officials or public figures because New York Times v Sullivan means that a newspaper with a high-powered lawyer and a big checkbook is likely to win, or at least intimidate most people into backing down who might want to file a libel lawsuit. It's not enough for reporters, editors, and publishers to say, "We can probably get away with this if we get sued." We need to check our facts and be absolutely sure we're right, and not take chances when we can destroy somebody's life with allegations which have only a minimal basis in fact.

    On the other hand, it is quite possible for people in the corporate office to be so afraid of lawsuits that they back down for no good reason.

    I'm thinking of a case from a number of years ago -- one in which I was only minimally involved, and was at a newspaper where I haven't worked for years -- where a police officer actually threatened to sue the newspaper for reporting the city in which he lived after he was arrested for fleeing the scene of an off-duty drunk driving crash. (His claim was that we put his safety at risk by reporting his hometown.) Never mind that the man's name, age, and city of residence were posted by the state patrol on their public website, and all of that information plus details of the crash were available in publicly available court records, and the television station in the city where he worked had already reported the same information we had reported in our newspaper. I could hardly believe the police officer could get a lawyer to take his case, but I was even more shocked that our newspaper's out-of-state lawyer thought at first we had done the wrong thing by reporting the city where he lived! Clearly, that lawyer didn't understand that identifying people by name, age, and city is standard in the media, and wasn't aware that in our state, all that information is posted on the internet for everybody arrested by the state patrol or involved in a personal injury car crash worked by the state patrol.

    Just as tabloids can use their big bank accounts to get away with bad things because libel lawsuits are very difficult to win, some newspapers are so afraid of lawsuits that they will kill stories which should not be killed.

    I think the bottom line is that reporters do need to recognize that we operate with a different standard than the court system. Sometimes that means a higher standard; sometimes it just means a different standard.

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  25. Darrell, thank you for sharing those examples. Sometimes the standards are higher and sometimes they are just different. What I really like about your comment is that it gives insight into the process journalists use when evaluating information. Especially declining to report allegations until those making them filed a lawsuit. Now if we could just get that seasoned judgement to spread... Thanks for reading!

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  26. Michelle Damico (via LinkedIn)May 21, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    I would never turn down the chance for a well-prepared client to talk to a reporter whose audience fits my clients' business objectives. Reporters and editors are influencers and they are our clients' conduits to get to their desired audiences.
    My client preparation includes:
    1. informing why the interview is a great opportunity and include reporter's background.
    2. guiding on how to provide compelling information that is to-the-point to save reporters precious time.
    3. teaching them to focus on the lead and save the background for later
    4. advising that reporters want info, they don't want to be your friend and don't care to be treated as such
    5. telling them it's OK to respond "I don't know" vs. making up an answer or (at worst) saying "No comment." Never ever say "No comment."
    Want more? My blog post from 2 years ago is just as relevant today!

    Media Interview: Thrill or Terror?
    http://www.michelledamico.com/2011/03/media-interview-thrill-or-terror/

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  27. Thanks for reading and for commenting, Michelle! You hit it right on the head. 1) well-prepared client, 2) focus on the audience and 3) serve a business objective. It's not just about "getting on TV" or building a clip file. I really appreciate you taking the time to weigh in here.

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  28. James Ritchie (via LinkedIn)May 23, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    Mainstream media reporters are paid not to have a bias or a dog in the fight. Being quoted, therefore, is taken as endorsement by a neutral third party of your expertise or standing. People want that. I'm a business reporter, so I'm looking at it from that point of view.

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  29. James, that's a great, succinct description and I think helps make the case that there is still value talking to reporters. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and weigh in here.

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  30. Carol Cudnik (via LinkedIn)May 23, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    Oh, multiple reasons. I want a reporter to give me facts, so I can draw my own conclusions. Don't intentionally tell me half a story to sway me to your side.

    I lost quite a bit of respect for reporters when I was in high school, due to a local incident that garnered national coverage. I understand wanting to get the story out, but there needs to be a balance between sensationalism and respect for your subject. When someone loses seven family members, the last thing they want is for a reporter to stick a mic in their face and ask "How do you feel?" I know you have a deadline, but opening with "I'm sorry for your loss" or something to that effect, doesn't take a whole lot of time and might make you seem a bit more human when you do get around to asking the tough questions.

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  31. Carol, thanks for your POV. It's hard when reporters show no compassion for those they are interviewing. I've seen that from other reporters when I've been covering tragic stories. One even asked a five year old boy if he was sad that is four year old friend was burned to death in a fire. Unreal. Thanks so much for reading.

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  32. Richard Rostron (via LinkedIn)May 23, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    I've had to call parents the day that their children died. I went to a high school, the last day of school before summer, where a student died in front of the school on his motorcycle. In the latter case, his friends were clearly hostile towards me and I fully understood. In the prior, I always tried to treat those involved with respect and compassion. One mother, whose daughter died on a motorcycle several hours earlier, was already talking about how she wanted her daughter's death to be a lesson for others. One person became angry and hung up (I was told to call as deadline was short). I fully understood his feelings. I never treated a story where someone has a personal loss, such as this, as if it were nothing more than an opportunity to scoop a story. Truth is, as a freelancer at the time, I could have turned down the stories. However, I didn't believe I could pick and choose the stories I wanted. If I wanted to do the stories I liked to do, I had to do the stories I didn't want to do.

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  33. Richard, thank you for sharing those stories. Talking to people who've suffered a loss is always excruciating. I know that most journalists try to be as sensitive as possible. Just watching the journalists covering the tornados in Oklahoma this week, the local folks were very sensitive about the impact and loss suffered by so many of their neighbors.

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  34. Joe Zingher (via LinkedIn)May 23, 2013 at 9:24 AM

    As a non-reporter I have to wonder why you even want to interview the grieving family at all. I have no desire to see it and there's no social good that I can see that comes from it. So why is it "news" at all?

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  35. Joe, I think if you look at what journalism really is... the stories about how events or issues impact people. In a tragic story those suffering the most are feeling the most impact. That is why reporters tend to gravitate to the families of victims during a disaster. It is a way for humans to connect to other people on an emotional level. Whether there is social good is another debate. But that's why they do seek those interviewees out.

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  36. Darrell Todd Maurina (via LinkedIn)May 23, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Joe, the short answer is that it depends on the situation. Personally, I try to avoid contacting grieving families when somebody has died or has been seriously injured. Instead, I usually stick with the official police or emergency services reports, along with on-scene photography and firsthand accounts from reporters at the scene, unless there is something particularly newsworthy about the event, or the person involved is newsworthy.

    My view that it should be obvious that the family is going to be grieving when somebody dies. That's not news; that's normal.

    Exceptions exist, however, and that's especially true in very major incidents or incidents involving public people. A few years ago, the elderly father of one of our elected officials disappeared, wasn't found for weeks, and finally was located dead on a rarely-used road where he had crashed his car. That story had to be reported, and the family was cooperative, but some of the reporters were extremely insensitive.

    There are no hard and fast rules here, and what works well in one case may blow up in another.

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  37. Thanks for the comment, Darrell. I wonder how much discussion journalism students have regarding being sensitive to those they interview. I didn't have any of those discussions when I was in school. I learned on the job interviewing people in the middle of tragedy. There were good days and bad. I eventually learned that backing off is ok. Not getting that interview and being able to live with myself was better than causing those suffering additional pain.

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  38. James O'Shea (via LinkedIn)May 28, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    In response to the question about why a reporter would even want to talk to a grieving family member, how about getting it right. No one likes to be put into a position of asking questions to a parent or relative who has just suffered a tragic loss. My first day as a reporter on a daily newspaper, I was dispatched to a home to talk to the parents of four kids who had just been killed in a freak accident. They had gone to a drive in movie during a snow storm and the heavy snow rose above the tailpipe of the car. They were asphyxiated. Before I left on my grim assignment, an editor pulled me aside and asked if I had ever done anything like this. I, of course, said no. I wasn't looking forward to it and most reporters I've known over the past 30 years felt the same. But then the editor said something that made sense. "Well, you just tell them that you know it is a bad time, but the newspaper wants to make sure that we get everything right about your children." When I got to the house, the initial response to my presence was hostile. However, when I told them why I was there, the hostility level decreased and they actually appreciated the effort to go to the primary source for information instead of relying on others. That is called REPORTING, which is what distinguishes journalism from social media and all of the other sloppy practices championed by the new media. So in response to the question of why would you talk to a reporter? Well, if you don't, they will go elsewhere for their information. Is that what you really want? Will the reporters get everything right? In my experience, more often than not, yes. No one hears about all of the stories where reporters get it right. But we flooded with isolated examples of when they don't. This is not to say that reporters don't get things wrong. We do and we should correct any mistakes promptly. The real problem today is the people who don't care if they get it right. And, in my mind, they are not reporters -- they are the repeaters who all too often dominate social media.

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  39. William Sweet (via LinkedIn)May 29, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    One factor that has nothing to do with what reporters or media are doing: in some cases the mistrust is manufactured and encouraged by people in power who want to manage information. Mistrust of the media really started to ramp up during the Reagan era, when it best served the Gipper that people didn't believe the media.

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  40. I think you have the timeframe correct regarding media mistrust, but I'm not sure I agree with the cause you cite. The 1980s also gave rise to 24-hour news with CNN. Things became news and brought to our attention that we otherwise would not have known about. More content = more mistakes. More mistakes = less trust. I really do appreciate your POV, though. William, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  41. Richard Rostron (via LinkedIn)May 29, 2013 at 10:01 PM

    Your supposition, William, is that the media was not biased and the accusation during the Reagan years that the media was biased was merely a plot by conservatives aimed at creating a fissure between the media and consumers of news. Seems a convenient way to blame someone else for what many see as the media's problem. I'm sorry, but even with more than 80 percent of journalist identifying themselves as liberals, and only a portion of the remainder as conservatives, at the very least, the situation would require a certain honest, introspective review. But, what is the battle cry of the media today? "We're fine, conservatives are to blame." Even if you honestly believe that, if you're truly committed to the highest standards of the profession, wouldn't you want to make sure - reaffirm your commitment to journalistic quality? And, if it's not true, wouldn't you want to put those criticisms to rest once and for all?

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  42. Richard, thanks again for weighing in. I wonder how much is truly politics vis how much we want to attribute this issue to political factors. I'm certain it is part of it, but not all. News media cover politics because conflict is an easy story to do. So much political coverage provides a perception that there is a political cause (or solution) for every problem. The heart of my question is not political. Given the media's inherent bias (call it liberal, call it anti-corporate, David vs Goliath) why would the average business leader want to talk to a reporter today? If reporters show up with the "narrative" for their story and are looking for some plug-and-play character to round things out, then what's the point? It feels a bit like a casino... never bet against the House.

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  43. Off the record is no longer respected. It is now interpreted as "go ahead and publish but don't use my name.

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  44. I've never understood the upside in "off the record." And you're correct that OTR information is now interpreted as you describe. The downside for reporters working this way is that they are easy prey for those with agendas, vendettas, etc. I'm always skeptical of information that comes from an unnamed source. If someone is unwilling to attach their name to their information, in my mind the value is diminished and/or questionable. I do recognize the irony in making that statement in response to an anonymous comment on my blog. Thanks for reading, though. I appreciate it.

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