Disturbing Television Media Trend #7: Unconfirmed Reports

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By Gerard Braud

If the story of Chicken Little was told today, there is a strong likelihood that it would quickly be picked-up by, and reported by, the television news media.

It would go like this: Chicken Little would have an acorn fall on her head, she would scream, “The sky is falling.” Minutes later the news media would be reporting that we have unconfirmed reports that they sky is falling.

I can hear it now: “CNN has not yet confirmed that the sky is falling, but reports from the barn yard indicate Chicken Little said, ‘The Sky is falling’.”

I’ve been hearing the phrase, “has not confirmed,” much too often as I scan the dials of television news each morning. CNN’s sister network, HLN, uses this phrase much too often. Research by I.Q. Media found the phrase was used 187 times on HLN Morning Express with Robyn Meade, the program where I first noticed this disturbing trend. I’m a regular morning viewer of the show, but the phrase has turned up too frequently lately on stories about the Korean ferry accident, the Donald Sterling controversy, the Malaysian Airlines 370 story, and reports in the realm of entertainment and social media.

Black Hole Theory CNN MalaysiaWhen I hear the phrase, “We have not confirmed,” what I really hear is, “Our producers are too incompetent and lazy to know how to confirm something before they put it in the teleprompter.” As a former reporter and anchor, I’m embarrassed for the anchors who have to read the story, knowing that many are good journalists who must do what the boss says if they want to keep their job. In my career, I reached the point at which I could not ethically and in good conscious do the dumb things and say the dumb things my bosses wanted me to do.

By comparison, during the Water Gate investigation by the Washington Post, nothing was ever reported until it was confirmed by at least three sources. Let me shout that: THREE SOURCES.

For 20 years I’ve been observing the silly ritual of, “CNN reports that ABC reports that NBC reports the CBS reports that CNN reports the sky is falling.” For 20 years, media has gone from attributing facts and stories from their own sources, to facts reported by a competing network, to only rumors being shared by some source, which is not verified or known to be reliable.

It gets worse because the story containing the unverified and unconfirmed information is recycled in online sources that simply aggregate and repeat the reports. Search most news topics and you can find the identical story with the identical words on thousands of websites.

So how does this affect you if you are in PR and communications, working for a corporation, non-profit organization or government agency?

It is easier than ever before for someone to intentionally or inadvertently destroy the reputation of your employer or client, while simultaneously damaging revenues.

Winston Churchill has been paraphrased as saying a lie can be half way across town before the truth puts on its boots in the morning. In today’s modern digital age, a lie has circled the globe countless times by unreliable sources and then circulated more by so-called reliable media sources, before you even know the lie is out there.

This disturbing trend means you need a skilled staff or vendor who can monitor online content every minute of the day, so you can respond quickly.

And because the online trend will be reported by the mainstream media, more than ever before you must have well trained spokespeople who can respond quickly and a crisis communications plan created on a clear sunny day that fully addresses such crisis scenarios. Failing to prepare and attempting to wing it in the middle of the crisis will make the crisis much worse and further damage reputations and revenues.

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