Just the facts ma’am: The evolving brand of the news

August 12, 2014

For many of my adult years, I was a news junky. But of late, I’ve given up on watching most news broadcasts or even regularly reading any one newspaper or online outlet. I crave news, but find only opinions. Slanted, biased, predictable, premeditated opinions – or anything you could ever want to know about the Kardashians. I fear the news has lost its way. And its brand.

When there were just three broadcast channels and the evening news was our primary source of information, Walter Cronkite stood as “the most trusted man in America.” As man walked on the moon, a vital president was assassinated or the Vietnam War continued on, Cronkite was a voice of reason, compassion and information. He presented the facts. He rarely offered his position, but rather gave us enough information to make up our own minds.

Over the years, Cronkite was closely followed by Rather, Jennings and Brokaw. They were big men with big jobs, and they largely had America’s trust. While we may have preferred Brokaw’s folksy style to Rather’s parental approach, we were not forced to choose between information and perception, as I believe we are with today’s news broadcasts.

The brand of the news has devolved. No longer do I trust anchors like Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow or even Anderson Cooper. Even newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post have a clear position, as do digital outlets like Politico, Drudge Report and the Huffington Post.

What has happened to the news and can its brand be repaired? Somebody call Jeff Zucker, I have a plan.

Redefine what’s news
I remember taking a journalism course where we were provided with a clear formula for what constituted news: timeliness, impact, proximity and novelty. In the years since this journalism course, the definition of news seems to have morphed. Additionally, where there was once a demarcation between hard news outlets and soft news outlets, that line seems to have all but disappeared.

Today, we have George Clooney’s engagement integrated with the Gaza conflict on CNN’s homepage. Or Taylor Swift writing an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. There is even a dedicated Celebrity News section within the Economist web site. What is happening?

I love celebrity gossip, really I do. It’s a vice. But let’s not confuse gossip with hard news. And yet that is what seems to be happening. Outlets once dedicated to in-depth stories and investigative journalism are complementing those pieces with celebrity fluff. We see Leonardo DiCaprio on 60 Minutes and read about “Kapitalism, With Kim Kardashian” in The Atlantic.

I believe the brand credibility of traditional news outlets has diminished because they have forgotten their audience. Sometimes the strongest brands are those that know when to say no, those that choose not to extend their product in a particular direction because it is not in alignment with their brand. I believe hard news organizations need to reassess their brands and align them with their offerings. The discord is devaluing their place in the market.

Be truly “fair and balanced”
Chris Rock has a bit in which he addresses the polarization of America. I believe it’s a smart observation so I’ve edited a bit to make it appropriate for print. "’I'm conservative.’ ‘I'm liberal.’ ‘I'm conservative.’ Bologna. Be a person. Lis-ten! Let it swirl around your head. Then form your opinion. No normal, decent person is one thing, okay? I've got some things I'm conservative about, I've got some things I'm liberal about.”

I’d say Chris speaks for a large percentage of us. We are moderate, thinking people who look for information with which to form our opinions. These opinions may fall at either end of the spectrum depending on the issue at hand.

And yet, news outlets are inherently characterized by their liberal or conservative bent. MSNBC is for the left and FOX News is for the right. Think Obama should be impeached? Tune into Glenn Beck. Think Bush is the root of all evil? Read Time Magazine.

News outlets generally convey information that suits their bias or worse yet, spin the news to fall in line with their stated viewpoint. Some might even argue that both ends of the political spectrum – liberal and conservative – have become so loose with the facts that they’re making up the news. “I think” is not news; it is at best opinion, and at worst conjecture.

There is a role for opinion, but let’s separate it from news. According to a recent Pew Center report, MSNBC fills 85% of its airtime with opinion or commentary segments. Fox News with 55%. Even CNN, a station that built its brand on breaking news, has nearly 50% commentary.

To rebuild the brand of news, let’s return to making it news – a truly fair and balanced look at the events of the day. Perhaps we might also reap the added benefit of understanding and coming together, rather than having the news play a hand in polarizing us.

Being first doesn’t make you a leader 
When two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon nearly a year and a half ago, the amount of misinformation reported was shocking. In the rush to be first, outlets reported hearsay, conjecture and opinion. Suspects were misidentified, as were motives, locations and other events. The official mantra of many news outlets seemed to be, “Get on the air first. Apologize later.” 

This is but one example of many. The pace of the news, the insatiable appetites of the public and the constant access to information has forced news organizations to err on the side of fast. There is no time to check sources or investigate further. Because if you don’t have it on air, on Twitter or on your website, you can be sure your competitor does. 

One of the hardest lessons I have learned as an adult is that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Even better is to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Unfortunately as news organizations have grown, they seem to have missed this vital lesson. It’s okay to tell me to wait. For instance, a building has exploded in Harlem, but you don’t know why yet. You have reporters at the scene looking for the facts. Instead, broadcasters and print reporters wonder aloud 

I know this sounds naïve when there are advertisers, investors, shareholders and boards to please. But there has to be a better way.

News is a tough business. Digital has completely changed the pace. Twitter has created disintermediation. Political strife has created polarization. And anchors have evolved into personalities. These are not simple issues. They are issues directly related to the business of news. Yet in the interim, the brand of news suffers. But should you solve the business challenges at the cost of the brand? I don’t think so. 

By going back to the basics of branding and the news – honesty, transparency and approachability – the media might be able to rebuild its brand and still find relevancy in today’s 24-hour news cycle. “And that’s the way it is."

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