SPIN: How the News Media Misinform…

by PR Coach on February 26, 2012

Bob Conrad says they’re biased, error-prone, misleading and, on occasion, devious or even liars. No, he’s not referring to public relations people. He’s talking about the news media.

Conrad is an award-winning public relations and marketing professional with a PhD (University of Nevada) and his APR accreditation. His new book Spin! How the News Media Misinform and Why Consumers Misunderstand (affiliate link) challenges many of our assumptions about the media and its reporting practices and shows how the public often misinterprets the news as a result.

Based on his analysis, he’s not going to win many friends among reporters and editors though Jay Rosen, Robert Niles, Jeff Jarvis  and others share similar worries about the future of journalism.

With academic rigor, Conrad re-examines many high-profile cases where media failed to report accurately and objectively despite the facts. Citing research, he shows how the media failed to act with integrity even when shown the correct facts before publication.

Conrad recounts several glaring examples of reporter transgressions. He also highlights the challenges for both media and PR pros working in this new era of social media, public advocacy and citizen journalism.

He starts with the built-in bias of “he-said/she-said” reporting. Coverage of genetically modified food provides an example. Scientists with valid research and solid data find it difficult to get balanced coverage because of a built-in bias by media. In seeking “balance”, media start with quotes from scientists and researchers. Then reporters turn to advocacy groups for alternate points of view.

Many times, Conrad says advocacy groups use emotion and improper science or faulty facts to support their positions or criticism. Often doing so with colorful stunts designed to play well to TV cameras or soundbites designed to appeal to rip-and-read reporting.

Seven Built-in Media Biases

Conrad notes seven psychological biases at play for both reporters and readers:

  1. eyewitness fallacy
  2. underutilization of statistics
  3. confirmation bias
  4. misperception of risk
  5. misinterpretation of regression
  6. illusory correlation
  7. fundamental attribution error.

“Media events can be misinterpreted by audiences because of self-deception, which is a concern because an individual’s perception biases can hold more weight in one’s mind than otherwise verifiable information, such as scientific evidence,” he writes.

Conrad references a “startling” 2002 research study on consumer perceptions of food safety. “Given the choice between information delivered by experts and views offered by activists, consumers overwhelmingly sided with negative information, despite the credibility, or lack thereof, of the source.”

This was exactly the scenario played out in a story on safe drinking water in the New York Times in late 2009. Using faulty data provided by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the newspaper story created widespread public concern about water quality. Prior to publication, scientists advised the reporter of the faulty data. The story ran regardless.

According to Conrad, the same scenario has played out with EWG’s annual list of “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables. The advocacy group advised consumers to avoid 12 foods with high pesticide levels despite data showing that with few exceptions the foods met official health standards.

I blogged about the challenges of apple growers and vegetable producers who tried to respond and refute these negative claims, conflicting scientific data and scary headlines.

Toyota’s Reputation Wrongly Suffered from Media Coverage

In another high-profile case, coverage of alleged Toyota vehicle defects dominated headlines for nearly a year.

Convincing evidence now shows car maker Toyota was not at fault for most of the crashes and deaths attributed to it in 2010. “A 10-month study by federal investigators – the NHTSA with assistance from NASA – confirmed Toyota’s own research that sticky accelerators and floor mats were to blame in some instances but that alleged unintended acceleration was all driver error,” Conrad says.

The NHTSA’s own report exonerated Toyota. The accidents were mostly driver error. Unfortunately, media coverage and analysis of that finding pales by comparison to the original media headlines and hysteria.

It’s impossible to measure the negative impact on Toyota’s reputation. Despite its own research, it was unable to prove its innocence in the glare of overwhelmingly negative and ultimately wrong media coverage.

Conrad highlights several other big media hoaxes as well as his own personal examples of poor reporting practices and unethical media behavior. It’s not a pretty picture.

Pity the poor consumer trying to stay accurately informed. Despite the media’s biases and the public’s own preconceived ideas.

Seven Solutions to News Media Credibility Crisis

I like the fact that Conrad holds the media to the same high standards of accountability they expect in PR professionals.

He ends his book with seven suggestions to help the media emerge from it own credibility crisis:

  1. Remove filters. Including the built-in biases that have crept into journalism.
  2. Divide news into two sections: news and opinion.
  3. Adopt public relations principles. Including transparency, the free flow of information and genuine acknowledgement of errors.
  4. Fire the worst offenders. Reward fairness, accuracy and excellence in reporting.
  5. Seek credible sources. Apply skepticism and more rigorous fact checking equally to officials as well as advocacy groups.
  6. Fix the broken system of accountability. Add more journalism checks and balances and consider strengthening oversight within and outside of the media.
  7. Embrace the fifth estate. Don’t exclude bloggers, independent reporters, freelancers, citizen journalists and watchdogs. Just clearly label their contributions as “opinion.”

Downsizing, fewer editors, lack of external oversight and the new pressures of popularity by page views make it harder and harder for media to report accurately and fairly. If left unchallenged, poor reporting practices will continue to play to the preconceived notions of audiences or readers.

At the end of Conrad’s slim 77-page book, readers will recognize the impact of reporter biases, the difficulty of interpreting complex data and the challenge of journalism in a quickly changing world.

He doesn’t claim all reporters are biased but he does paint a convincing picture of concern.

Without changes to journalism, the casualty will be the truth. Not to mention media credibility and diminishing public trust. It’s a wonder there’s still so much excellent news reporting every day.

In my view, advocacy groups play an important role in society. And there’s nothing like superb reporting when it’s done right. Stronger accountability for all, including PR pros, is a  valuable safeguard.

Open-minded journalists, embattled PR pros and students in both disciplines will find Conrad’s book thought-provoking. It also helps explain why it’s a challenging yet exciting time to work in public relations.

What are your thoughts? Do you trust the media more or less than you did two years ago? Which advocacy groups do you believe and which don’t you trust? Does social media make your PR job harder or easier? Just add your thoughts in the comments below.

You can order Conrad’s book through Amazon or browse more than 230 other public relations titles in the PR Coach Bookstore. We hope you’ll also sign up for weekly PR tips and insight in our Blog or get it delivered through your favorite RSS reader.

Author: Jeff Domansky

Photo credit: Bob Conrad/Amazon