Living With (and Working Against) Fake News

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

Second, there’s been a lot of media attention around “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “bad ads” this past week, and in this digital age, it’s not surprising to see these phenomena come forward. These are not political manifestations — I believe they happen because of human nature, unchanged over time, and in the digital realm, there are new opportunities for bad behavior.

My point here is that we’ve allowed this to happen.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: decades past have had their days of yellow journalism and snake-oil salesman. While I may long for the days of fair and impartial voices in journalism — a la, Walter Cronkite — there’s always been an element in media that’s sponsored by one interest or another, perhaps for entertainment, even if the veneer is authoritative, informative and educational. For years, “feel good” stories are inserted in evening newscasts. And product placements appear in morning television. In cable television news, is there any news at all or is it mostly commentary and entertainment? So, I continue to worry about who pays the freight for U.S. journalism, even as I recognize and welcome the fact that advertising foots the bill.

We need, perhaps desperately, in American democracy the check and balance of a well-financed, vibrant Fourth Estate. The “Media Opposition Party” is hardly monolithic — and that’s why I still care about the practice of journalism that takes time to fact check and to keep its editorial opinions on the Editorial Page. That’s why I also watch public television and listen to public radio — no interest there, except to the public (or at least the members of the public that is its donor base). News versus analysis versus commentary — there needs to be a distinction.

Once again, we’re in a new age where there’s a slush — not a firewall — between church and state (publishing and editorial). The rise of “Native Advertising,” social influencers, “clickbait content,” brand journalism, pay-to-play speaking gigs, even who’s sitting next to you in a bar, muddies the distinction between editorial and paid content — particularly on a digital or mobile device. One from the other is a click away to an untrained eye. It is true that there is value, immense value, in paid content, but it’s also wise to know — as a citizen, as a consumer — when you’re engaged with paid media, from earned media, from editorial opinion, from entertainment.

Sometimes, when a PR practitioner is pitching an editor, reporter or conference organizer for earned media, he or she is presented with a paid media option instead. My client may well opt for the paid media option, but I make sure that my editorial pitch is really about editorial content. I’ll let my client know the availability of a paid media option, should they wish to pursue this.

Now, all that being said, I’m happy accepting earned media assignments (my bread and butter), as well as paid media assignments (content marketing). Let’s simply make sure they are distinct and differentiated when and where they appear. It’s not just the Federal Trade Commission who cares about this, I do, too! Hence, my blog today — and it is not a soap box.

Journalism: Where Are We Going and Who Will Pay for It?

What a time to be a chronicler of news. In 2015, being a newspaper journalist just overtook lumberjacking as the worst job in America — posting a 13 percent decline in employment prospects. (Broadcast news wasn’t far behind, at third worst.)

news-1172463_640Is journalism — the chronicling of the day’s news and analysis about that news – under threat? Of course it is.

Last month, I visited my alma mater for the 50th Anniversary of the University of Connecticut and its journalism department. There were panels of alumni reporters, editors and news entrepreneurs — some with Pulitzers in big-city papers, some with broadcast backgrounds and some stringers for local news in hometowns, U.S.A.

A dominant discussion was the future of journalism — and who will pay for it? There were hopeful statements, for certain — just being a reporter these days demands resiliency among other mind and skill sets — but there was also plenty of worry.

What a time to be a chronicler of news. In 2015, being a newspaper journalist just overtook lumberjacking as the worst job in America — posting a 13 percent decline in employment prospects. (Broadcast news wasn’t far behind, at third worst.) Certainly digital news sites abound, but print historically demanded a subscription — and consumers just don’t pony up to online news sites and their paywalls like they used to do offline.

The original sin of the Internet was not the first display ad, it was giving it all away for “free.” Some argue the “big give away” democratizes information. Others see it as an alarmist trend toward socialism. The rise of the citizen journalist (I’m one here) doesn’t necessarily translate to the most learned of fact gatherers, fact checkers, superb editing and the advancement of human knowledge. Too often, it’s the lowest common denominator — rumor and innuendo, celebrity and entertainment, prurient subjects — that gather the most clicks and distracts the electorate (and quite a few candidates) from more considered concerns.

Just think about it — music, news, sports, weather, apps and so many other conveniences — how many of us, as users, pay online for what some more seasoned of us used to pay offline. Even where we do pay, is it at the level we once shelled out in print, or dollars to dimes?

And yet, our nation’s fourth estate — the vibrancy of our democracy — is at stake. Who is served when diversity of news and opinions are concentrated only in deep pockets, amid a hurry to post online and worry about fairness and accuracy tomorrow? When a columnist at a Las Vegas newspaper can’t even write about community business leaders who are owners of casinos — is this what journalism is coming to?

Let me conclude with some upbeat answers. When paid subscriptions wither, we all know who is there to fill the bill: advertisers. The division of church and state — keeping the newsroom independent of the publishing side of the business — is a time-honored and necessary check and balance inside most media organizations. Where it’s blurred, the integrity of information is sacrificed. That’s always worried me about native content trends. However, there are many journalists (alumni friends) who are very happy that advertising, advertisers and ad tech exist. They well know that without us, diversity of content, news and opinion, professionally gathered and edited, would go the wayside along with their livelihoods. It might be dimes instead of dollars, but it’s some compensation. Our hometowns, our nation, our world and now the Internet cannot afford anything less, and it’s certainly worth a lot more.