Is Reporting Reliably Possible in Twitterville?

May 18, 2016, Bruce Harrison

Arthur W. Page, corporate communicator at AT&T years ago, consistently practiced the virtues of telling the truth and proving it with action. Now, where everybody has to know, or pretend to know, something about everything all the time, Jim Rutenberg at the New York Times observes that journalists' responsibility for reliable guidance toward truth is slipping.

Jim Spangler, chief communicator at Navistar, recalls from his journalism days in Chicago a City News Bureau dictum, much like the one I also got way back when I was political reporter for the Columbus (GA) Ledger: "Check it out. If your own mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

Reliable, checked and double-checked solid news reporting—the hallmark of professional journalism that Jim and I continue to advocate with other members of the Society of Professional Journalists—now struggles for attention in the 24/7 short-take online jungle.

In his opinion piece entitled "The Republican Horse Race Is Over, and Journalism Lost" (Business Day, NYTimes 5/9/16), Rutenberg (nom de plume "Mediator") cites political journalists' mistakes–driven by time toward short takes and mistakes–that "piled up as they played down Donald Trump's candidacy."

He laments: "Wrong, wrong, wrong–to the very end, we got it wrong."

Three lessons are reviewed—one hopes, learned or, dare we say, relearned–in the light of the reality of Donald Trump's success as Republican presidential candidate.

Rutenberg says the Times (and other) journalists erred by:

  1. Presuming there would be "inflection points" at which "the Trump candidacy would go poof."
  2. Neglecting "the value of shoe-leather journalism" in the rush to get into the bits and bytes that deliver eyes online.
  3. Failing to generate and properly apply to "news" the relevant data, which in fact are readily available, but require time to assess.
If Rutenberg's mea culpa is a useful nudge back to the future–toward the neglected process of check and double check, interview, verify, ask who, what, when, where, and sometimes how and why—that would be the best achievable outcome for citizens as thoughtful followers and, ultimately, informed deciders empowered by credible, trustworthy reporting.

2 Comments

Great read, Bruce. It certainly has been fascinating to watch/read/listen to the coverage of the presidential race. In today’s instant news cycle, the definition of credible reporting has shifted. Now, there is the power of social persuasion…where social influencers (who may or may not be career journalists) have more followers than tier 1 media outlets. Journalists face quite the challenge in balancing fact-based reporting while also catering to demands for instant news.
In his daily post, Fortune's Alan Murray sites a recent Fortune survey of CEOs that solicited their response to the biggest challenges facing Fortune 500 companies. Do these challenges sound familiar to you? If not, they should. As senior communicators, we must be keenly aware of the issues that are top of mind with other leaders inside the company and we must be developing communications strategies and action plans that address these priorities. Alan's post is worth a read. I've pasted it below. What are the biggest challenges facing Fortune 500 companies? In our poll of Fortune 500 CEOs, the "rapid pace of technological change" got the most mentions as the "single biggest challenge" facing companies. But if you add in those who cited it as "one of our top three or four challenges," it was "increased regulation" that took top honors. Here are the percentages of CEOs who cited the following as either the "single biggest" or "one of our top three or four biggest" challenges: Increased regulation 69% Rapid pace of technological change 65% Cybersecurity 58% Management diversity 21% Shareholder activism 15% Competition from China 13% Competition from a startup 8% The issuance of major new federal regulations, by the government's own measures, has notably increased during the Obama years, outpacing previous Democratic and Republican administrations. In addition, increasingly aggressive antitrust enforcement has been an obstacle to the plans of many big companies - including Staples & Office Depot, Halliburton & Baker-Hughes, Sysco & U.S. Foods, AT&T & T Mobile, Comcast & Time-Warner Cable. That makes it all the more remarkable that a majority of CEOs favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, or decline to state a preference, in the presidential election. It's also remarkable how few Fortune 500 CEOs feel their company is threatened by either Chinese competitors, or by disruptive startups. Some CEO Daily readers have raised questions whether our CEO sample is sufficiently representative. We invited all 500 CEOs to participate; 71 completed the survey by the deadline. That's a better response rate - 14% - than most pollsters get, so we'll stand by it. I'll have more results from the CEO poll next week. If you want to see the poll questions for yourself, go here. Alan Murray @alansmurray alan.murray@fortune.com
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