This is second in a continuing series of article son how the news media is failing America. Here is the first article. Other links are at the bottom.
2. Operating budgets are so low that investigative reporting is out of the question. Generally, employees are so overworked that there simply is no time to do a good job.
I hear lots of people complain that people who work in the news media are “lazy” and that’s why the news media is so bad. I submit that it is more because operating budgets are so low that people are often forced to do what two, or even three employees ought to be doing. It is virtually impossible to do a good job when you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off trying to get it all done. Who has time to verify facts?
Operating budgets are low for lots of reasons.
REASONS WHY OPERATING BUDGETS ARE SO LOW:
- TV is expensive and time-consuming to produce, so they cut corners on staff.
- There is so much competition in the media that advertising dollars are stretched thin.
- Corporations want more profit for themselves. They can fill time with a cheaper product and still maintain decent enough ratings.
Newsroom staffs are stretched too thin, plain and simple. Stories are yanked from wire reports and copy/pasted into the newscast. There is zero time to check facts. There is barely enough time to do a shoddy job. There is absolutely no time to do a good job.
Every single newsroom I’ve ever been in had incredibly hardworking people trying to do their best. We worked long hours in a highly stressful environment. Owners cut budgets so bare that their employees are bled dry, just trying to keep up with the demands to fill time. They fill time with stories that are easy and cheap to produce. There may not be any quality to them, but owners have decided that is preferable to spending the money it would take to do real journalism.
Many newsrooms even run Video News Releases, which are fake news stories produced by public relations firms. They should never be aired verbatim, but they often are.
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING OUT OF THE QUESTION
Investigative reporting is virtually non-existent today due to the expense of producing it. Not only is any investigative report going to be a magnet for lawsuits, even if all the facts are correct, investigative reporting is dreadfully time-consuming. It can take months to get all the facts straight just for one small investigative story. Owners prefer that their reporters crank out at least one, if not two, or three stories per day.
If we go with just one story a day, verses three months to produce an investigative piece, that’s 90 superficial stories for the price of one substantial story. And you can bet the substantial story is going to bring lawsuits, or at least the threat of lawsuits. Even dealing with just a threat takes money. Owners are not willing to risk it.
REASON NUMBER THREE
3. Public relations companies crank out tons of “free” content that pollutes the discussion with half-truths and outright lies. Content-starved organizations with low budgets snap it up and present it as news.
I can not emphasize this enough. Much of what you see on any TV News broadcast, or in any newspaper or magazine, is nothing but regurgitated PR.
Public relations companies, at the request of their clients, produce content that is formatted and designed to look like news stories. They give this content free of charge to all media outlets. Although the media largely denies using this stuff, they often do, sometimes in its original form.
Back when I was the healthcast producer at WSMV-TV, I frequently saw news releases published verbatim in magazines as news items. I frequently saw video news releases used as the basis of TV News stories.
DIET DRUGS AS AN EXAMPLE
Remember the phen-fen debacle? Phen-fen was two diet drugs, phentermine and fenfluramine, sold in combination. I was working as a health producer when they became popular so covered this story a lot. It is a perfect example of public relations passing as news and causing untold damage.
Phen-fen because HUGELY popular, and profitable, because it was touted in the press as a miracle combination that was going to banish obesity. At first, no negatives were mentioned. Phen-Pen was THE MIRACLE CURE!!!! There were books written by doctors, magazine articles, newspaper articles and TV news stories galore all singing the praises of this wonderful drug duo. Sales took off like a rocket.
Trouble was, none of the information presented was actually objective news. It was PR, produced on behalf of the drug companies and widely disseminated in a massive, coordinated PR campaign.
Pesky facts about the pill’s ability to kill you were left out. Pesky facts proving it really didn’t work that well for sustained weight loss were also left out.
All that negative information was out there. This whole fiasco had nothing to do with the scientific and medical community’s ignorance of these facts. They knew. There were plenty of scientific studies showing the appetite suppressing effects wore off after a short while. There was also plenty of evidence that the pills greatly increased your chances of contracting PPH, or Primary Pulmonary Hypertension, a wickedly deadly disease.
But the role of public relations is to PROMOTE what the client wants you to promote. PR leaves anything negative out. In a real news story, the negatives are presented along with the positives. Objectivity is the hallmark of real journalism. PR is very subjective. PR is marketing, not news. Unfortunately, PR is passed off as news all the time.
If the news media had done its job and not unquestioningly regurgitated what was handed to them by drug company PR, phen-fen never would have become so popular.
But they didn’t, so phen-fen was eaten up in massive quantities by an unsuspecting public. Some of them died as a result.
Finally, word got out. New problems like heart valve damage cropped up and the phen-fen miracle diet was finally exposed as fraud. One of the two drugs, fenfluramine, was pulled from the market. Phentermine is still available, but its reputation was forever tarnished.
For the record, I produced a 5-part series for my TV station called “The Truth About Diet Drugs,” that detailed all of this. It included clips from a video news release where they had interviewed a doctor (paid handsomely I am sure) who said the pills worked great.
I had to fight like hell with my news director to produce this series as he could not understand why I was the only person going against the grain and saying the pills were not what they were cracked up to be.
To win the fight, I dropped a huge stack of scientific studies on his desk from periodicals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet detailing all the research I’d based my stories on. It was a stack of research papers about six inches high. He relented and let me do the stories.
Sadly, phen-fen is not the only example of this widespread practice. Global Climate change is another that comes to mind. The energy companies have spent large amounts of money to convince you climate change is not real.
If you want a really in-depth look at how the public relations industry controls much of what you see in the news, then I suggest this book, “Toxic Sludge is Good for You.” I recommend this book as one of the best I’ve ever read. It is spot on, with lots of examples of how the public relations industry has polluted the news media with advertising disguised as news.
Lorraine Grula, News Nerd and Journalism Advocate
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For further information on the many reasons why the news media is so dysfunctional in this country, check out these posts.
Here are 15 articles on the blog for Demand Real Journalism, plus one about me, in case that is a concern.