In the last few weeks of 2013, there were several stories involving the media that were not about the issues they were covering or the content they were seeking to cover. Instead, the story became about the ‘journalist’ or media personality. The story became lost in an inopportune use of a word or phrase, an open microphone, a misguided Tweet, or an on-air gaffe, that when judged in a short time frame decidedly came out all wrong. And in a nano-second of social media the ‘journalist/personality’ BECAME the news. The cause, the issue, the rich content, was lost, and all cameras turned inward on the reporter.
The traditional definition of a “journalist” is: “a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television”, while the traditional definition of a “reporter” is similar: “a person who reports, esp. one employed to report news or conduct interviews for newspapers or broadcasts.”. Also, a “commentator” is defined as “a person who discusses news, sports, or other topics on TV or radio”.
However, we are living in a time of citizen journalism, and definitions are changing rapidly. We are also living in a time of incredible speed pressures on reporters, journalists, etc. to get the news out there – “social it” while you are still finishing the last line of copy, in some cases. No time to go back and check accuracies or choice of words – do that later. “Say it” – becomes the mantra designed to target ratings, sweeps, or simply radio phones to ring. Or to be first. Always, to be first. And in all of this – a question: ‘where did the news go’? What happened to the point of the story?
Did the reporter – or spokesperson – say something that I refer to as “red flag words”? We all know what those are. Those of us who work in the field of public relations and crisis communication know it far too well. An example: Vice President Biden leans in to President Obama and comments on signing of a major healthcare bill. Straight into his open mic go the words, “this is a big fucking deal”. Healthcare got lost in a hushed rush to dissect the line, get it on ‘the news’ – and there it goes….out to the masses. (PR people the world over simply closed their eyes, in a thought of solidarity – ‘oh, Joe…’). Another example: The Pope recently issues a statement that talks about the importance of training men in the clergy. And he remarks that failure to do this and make the right choices creates “little monsters”. Really? Can you write the lead headline?
Using these examples as well as one recently by Melissa Harris-Perry where she made humorous remarks about a photo of Mitt Romney’s huge white family, complete with a single African-American grandchild placed on his knee, went very bad. This reporter/commentator was raised in an interracial family – as a matter of fact, she relating to being that single black child in a large white family, herself. In moments, moments!, the story was lost in an ever thundering query of a poorly placed racial joke. Made by a black reporter.
Click here: http://youtu.be/fleGFsjmC_8
So, while it can be an average person who makes these gaffes, it is particularly troublesome to see the media do so. It seems altogether out of professionalism to see the reporter not standing behind the story, but come out in front of it and become the story.
This usually happens quite by accident, but with increasing frequency. And what do you do when it happens? In the world of crisis communications, most professionals abide by a “never say ‘no comment'” advice line to clients who find themselves in situations with a demand for comment from the media. You can say nothing, but you must say something, is the way I’d prefer to advise. But ‘no comment’ is a lightning rod. It implies you have something to hide. Or you doubly agree with your gaffe. Or something worse is happening behind you. And the media (once your friends) – and the public – dig in. The story festers. History, if there is history, gets dragged out, and the story reinvents itself over and over and develops, what we call “legs”.
People, be careful of your words. Don’t let a word become a story, or take your story and stomp on it.
Here is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford dancing to Bob Marley’s “One Love” – does anyone know why he was dancing? (To celebrate jazz in Toronto, which was being recognized in congress that day). This came after Ironically, a response Ford gave to the speaker of congress who had asked him for an apology: Ford said, “How about, ‘I am so sorry’? Is that as good as I apologize? Or, ‘So sorry?’ Which one do you want, Madam Speaker? Like, ‘Super, super, super, super, super, super, super sorry? So sorry?’ Do you want me to dance around?”