The Perils of Everyone Thinking Alike – Part 3

The third article that appeared that day was a Wall Street Journal section called “Squaring Off ” on Big Issues on Energy.  They had people who were for or against the proposed activities presented.  The people were wiling to tell “why” they thought the way they did.  There were six questions – or issues – that ranged from oil & gas to electricity generation.  On each question, they asked one person on each side of the issue to explain (the “why” ) of his or her position.  The section was 6 pages long.  Each page had a brief description of the question and a few related statistics.  But the majority of each page was taken up by each persons explanation of “why” he (or she) had come to their position.  Had they just asked the questions and asked each of the people “what ” his position was, they probably could have done it in one page or less.  It takes much more time and space for news media to report the “why” than the what.  But it was a useful exercise for me.  Even though I thought I had positions on about half the issues, reading the opposite opinions may not have changed my position, but it gave me some ideas and knowledge that I had not had before.  The other articles gave me from useful information to think about.  Their probably is not a perfect answer to either side of any of them, and the explanation provided by both sides of each question seemed logical and thought out.

I think that news media have at least 3 major problems today in doing what they say their mission is.  The argument they put forth for the public is that they provide accurate and objective reporting of facts that are needed by people in a politically free society.  they need to understand the issues of the day so they can vote intelligently.  But I don’t think they do a very good job of any of that for three primary reasons.

At some point OXY Oil & Gas, USA, which was headquartered in Tulsa, decided that they needed someone reasonably high in management designated and trained to deal with the news media in case we had a catastrophe .  I’m not sure why, but I was selected for that – to be the Crisis Communication Manager.  When this happened in the 1990’s, Tulsa had a metropolitan area with a population of about 600,000.  We had 3 or 4 TV stations belonging to major national networks and still had two local Newspapers.  The training was from a training company based in Washington D. C. which was founded and headed by a lady who had been a CNN news reporter.  Our class trainer, who came to Tulsa from that company, was also a former CNN news reporter.  We had a fairly small class.  It included  me, our environmental manager, our environmental lawyer, and H.R. manager who was my back-up.  She said the purpose of the class was to teach us how to handle suddenly being in front of TV lights and a TV camera with a reporter asking pointed questions. The class was both lecture and mock situational practice.  One thing I remember from the lecture was that she said, “beware the 10 second sound bite”.  TV news can use anything you say and a sentence or less taken out of context can sound like something entirely different than what you are trying to convey.  She also talked about “loaded questions” which can generate 10 sec. sound bites that can sound sensational.  She said that the best way to avoid this is before you get in front of the camera, decide the message you want to convey.  Figure out how to say it quickly and succinctly (an “elevator speech”).  And whatever question you get asked, that’s your answer.

The news media defends themselves by saying that they only report facts, and provide the public with information they need to hear to be informed.  I decided some time ago, that the newspapers have the equivalent of the TV sound bite with a short quote.  Sound bites are factual things said by someone being reported by the news.  But can they be slanted by the news media?  Yes.  And it was a former national news reporter who first told me that.  The other thing that newspapers and TV news can do is select what is reported.  One of the things I have learned from some of my news paper reporting friends is the saying “If it bleeds, it leads”.  Sensational news tends to get reported on the front page or as the lead story.  Other news is reported on the back page or not at all.  TV news shows which are relatively short, also have no choice but to be selective.  And what gets reported and where can slant the news.  So even though news media is reporting “only facts” can they be distorted and not balanced?  Absolutely!!

So if the news media are not doing what they claim – why?  The first problem the news media is that the Universities they hire journalism students from have all ready inundated them with a single point of view.  (and we are more comfortable with people who think like we do.)  The Universities, in general tend to be more left-wing than they used to be. The worst areas are probably outside the Business and Scientific degree areas.  In science, there is enough information to cover that their might not be time for a lot of policy discussion. The faculty may be too busy attempting to give them the whole scientific picture.  In business there is still considerable conservative thinking.  But since the Federal Government has become responsible for the macro-economy (in the 1930’s and 40’s) Economic departments can have political positions in the area of Macro-economics.  But still today, the most open political opinions probably come from areas where the Journalism Schools are.  So big news media tend to hire Journalism majors as news reporters who tend to report the news in line with their thinking, so the news may be distorted without their necessarily realizing it.

The second problem papers have that reporters know how to write, but don’t know much about the subjects they are writing about.  When I was an under-grad in college we had to take mostly required courses in our 1st two years.  The required courses included some STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) courses.  So graduates – regardless of major – had at least an introduction to science and math.  But, I think, Universities have mostly done away with those required freshman and sophomore courses.  The colleges have gotten more competitive is recent years and this probably helps attracting students. So the chances are good that most of the journalist majors haven’t had any education in those subjects.  Most of today’s political issues are in these subject areas.  So I decided sometime ago that the journalists knew how to write, but did not know much about the subjects they were writing about.  If that’s the case, then they don’t have the knowledge to ask the right questions or make a reasonable evaluation of the answers.

The third problem is that the big news media is under considerable competitive and financial pressure.  The newspapers and TV media have to make money to survive.  Private ownership should make them independent of government politics and more balanced.    But in today’s high-tech world they have a lot of competition with cable and satellite TV (not to mention social media).  Revenue comes from being able to draw viewers and readers.  Sensational stories are thought to do this and I wouldn’t argue with that assumption.  Costs for newspapers include paper, ink and staff.  The daily papers are getting thinner which saves costs.  Even the Wall Street Journal is getting thinner.  Some that may be loss of ads with more on-line shopping.  But with the idea that sensationalism sells news papers and draws TV viewers,  news has become more sensational and less informative on the issues that matter.   Because of reduced space in newspapers there is less “why” reporting.  TV news has always been constrained by time, so there has never been much “why” reporting.  But it’s become more “sensational” as well.

I don’t know what the fix for all this is.  If you have any ideas, please let me know.




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About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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