In an effort to combat the onslaught of “fake news” accusations, some organizations have gone on the offensive with advertising campaigns designed to communicate each organization’s respective commitment to “truth.”
Unfortunately, the irony of this approach seems to be lost on the media executives who conceived it. As a news org, if you need to convince an audience you are telling the truth, or attract new customers using that tactic, it is a symptom, not a cure.
The clear and aggressive attacks on a free press are alarming and are causing real damage to the public trust. When people believe information posited as fact isn’t true, they avoid those sources of news — and all legitimate news outlets.
That means they’ll opt out of some ad-supported media, which will have a calamitous effect on democracy and capitalism. This problem goes beyond what pay walls can fix. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many media organizations could be gone within the next 10 years.
As a citizen concerned about our democracy, I am concerned about its effect on the media business and its immediate dependent, the advertising industry.
A free press teaches people to read, to think and to care about everything we hold dear. It stimulates discourse about business, arts, sciences and entertainment. The press exists to keep powerful people (in government, business, education, etc.) in check.
Without it, these people would have no limits to their power — and that’s not a democracy. Everything from our communities and families to our environment and economy are beneficiaries of this relationship.
While the situation may seem dire, it’s not impossible. But dramatic changes in how media companies communicate their role and value needs to change, and needs to change quickly.
A news organizations must dedicate a portion of their media space to public education about the media itself (5% of their inventory is a good place to start). Here are some messages news organizations can communicate (which don’t include “We’re telling the truth, we promise”) to make real progress towards regaining the trust of readers:
1. Explain the difference between news and editorial. Don’t be surprised, but most people do not have a clue these are indeed two very different topics.
2. Describe how news reporting is accomplished; specifically, confidential reporting, and why some sources are kept anonymous. Bring people inside the system, so it is better digested.
3. Give consumers an understanding of how to fact check their own news and information outlets to determine what is true vs. a (mostly online) hoax.
4. Show readers how you’re making money in this endeavor. Explain how advertising (and supporting the sponsors of their publications) is an integral part of the business plan and ecosystem. Let people know that keeping a check on powerful people is an expensive, yet worthwhile, proposition.
5. Go old school and explain the value of a free press. Highlight the real world positive effects (recent history and others) of news organizations uncovering what is bad in their community and forcing elected officials, organizations and businesses to be accountable to the public, not act in illegal or nefarious ways.
Every business entity that works to create original news content and sells advertising to fund that creation, needs to come together to make these changes. Advertising agencies should be engaged immediately. Trade groups, such as the Ad Council, the ANA, the AAAA’s, DCN or others, should be called upon to facilitate this approach as well, as it can’t be done on an individual basis.
There should also be efforts made around forming a consortium and ratings bureau in order to conduct fact checking. A group fact-checking effort allows people to support honest journalism. Money can’t let you in. You need a group that will grant a seal of approval.
The media industry is on the precipice of massive change, but these changes don’t have to mean the end of journalism. However, a failure to act will ensure that our industry will die.
News organizations must act now, or sadly, preside over their own demise.