How Now Brown Cow?

By Rich Nagle

A widely covered story in June seemed to show that some Americans were either poorly informed, not very bright or just plain gullible. But what it really showed is how smart PR people who understand how information travels through the media and the public can generate a huge amount of publicity for their clients. It’s also a useful lesson for anyone who wants to sharpen their media literacy skills.

Milk It For All It’s Worth

The story cited an online survey commissioned by the dairy industry organization Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy which found that 7 percent of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Coverage of the survey in the Washington Post and hundreds of other news outlets predictably provoked a wave of eye-rolling, forehead-slapping, “people are so dumb!” reactions especially on social media. Even more, the story highlighted how little Americans know about agriculture and where their food comes from. It also prompted analyses of how gullible people are in the age of “fake news” (leaving aside President Trump’s frequent use of the term to attack mainstream media coverage he doesn’t like). The story was everywhere for almost two weeks.

Let’s Break It Down

My early journalism training, experience as a wire service reporter and my career in public relations gives me a more nuanced take on the story. I don’t have any direct knowledge of the genesis of the brown-cow survey but I can take an educated guess.

From the PR side:

  • It’s the job of the PR people at the dairy Innovation Center to communicate the organization’s mission and educate the public about dairy products and agriculture.
  • June is “National Dairy Month” and probably a key point in the calendar as the PR team created their annual communications plan.
  • Surveys, contests, quizzes, etc., are one tool among many used in PR programs to get an organization’s messages out. Others are news releases, ghostwritten articles under executive bylines, funded research reports, public speaking appearances for executives and so forth. The tools used depend on the message you’re trying to communicate, the audience you’re trying to reach and the broader business goals you’re trying to achieve.
  • We don’t know how the survey questions were worded, but the results found that 93% of Americans know that chocolate milk does not come from brown cows. Not much of a story there. However, the fact that 7% think it does becomes your lead.
  • There’s a ready-made audience for “people are so dumb!” stories. “People” never includes ourselves, of course, as we perversely enjoy that we’re not one of the dummies.

From the news side:

  • The dairy group’s survey results might have shown up in reporter’s email, on one of the news release distribution services or on another verifiable source.
  • The brown-cow angle is an attention-getter that would get good play. It also seems harmless and funny so why not run it? Attribution to the U.S. Dairy Innovation Center gives it sufficient authenticity and context, and the group appears to be reputable.
  • There’s a legitimate angle about how little people know about agriculture or where their food comes from.
  • If a reporter felt it was a just a promo from a business group and skipped the story they’d catch holy hell from their editors and fellow reporters the next day when competing news outlets ran with it.
  • When a story appears in a top-tier publication like the Washington Post it’s going to push other news organizations to jump on it too.

Ironically, one follow-on analysis about the public’s lack of agricultural knowledge used a picture of a bull instead of a cow. It was later corrected.

Farming For Information

The brown-cow story shows how people know as little about how food reaches them as they do how information reaches them. One of our early blog posts, “Cui Bono,” encouraged people to recognize that information often reaches us not just because it’s worthy or important. With notable exceptions like unplanned events and investigative stories, a lot of information reaches us at a particular time and place to accomplish a purpose for an organization or an individual. There’s no conspiracy, mind-control or other weirdness at play. In fact it’s far simpler and vastly more boring than that.

Mooving Right Along

With the brown-cow story, it’s not really about how dumb some people are. Instead, it’s a story about a survey from a dairy industry group that says a small number of people responding to some questions might think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. More accurately, it’s a story about a clever way to get people thinking about how food – and information — actually reaches us.

Each of us has the tools and ability to learn more about both.

BYOF, Or Why “Bias” Is Bogus

Maybe it’s the relentless pace of news and continuous news alerts. Or maybe it’s just a reflection of the rampant partisanship in society in general.

Whatever the cause, we’ve been seeing an increasing amount of news commentators and consumers cherry-picking which facts they want to believe or use to inform their understanding of news. It’s what we call BYOF, or Bring Your Own Facts.

Sure. So What?

People tend to BYOF when their view of the news media is that,“they’re biased,” the eternal criticism of nearly every mainstream media outlet (insert the “they” of your choice). If someone doesn’t like what or how a mainstream media organization or journalist reports they tend to dismiss it as “biased” and then shop around for one they find more agreeable.

Yes, all news organizations have an institutional point of view that, depending on your own point of view, is “biased.” To that we say, “Sure. So what?” That definitely does NOT mean that their reporters share that point of view. In fact they often don’t. Journalists have the same types of reactions to events that everybody else has. But journalists are trained and learn by hard experience to subordinate those reactions to the professional and even obsessive practice of accuracy and thoroughness.

Accuracy Is What Matters

Instead of using “bias” to choose or rank where you get your news, use accuracy and thoroughness. It’s equally important to be thorough yourself and use a variety of news sources. No news organization is going to be 100% accurate and some are better than others. But if we use multiple sources then we have a broader base of pretty good facts to use. If you do this over time you get a much better idea of which organizations are more accurate more often. It’s not a case of seeing what’s “true” but determining what seems to be accurate at that point in time. That could change as you learn more.

The trick is to use caution with reports that try to tell you what to think. Look for neutral language and reporting that is as straight and unfiltered as possible. You want to try to get as close to the actual original source material as possible. Good reporters will add background and context with minimal interpretation to help you understand the story.

“This Is A Typical Disgusting Display…!!!”

Here are a couple of analogies:

  • Rich has gone to many NHL hockey games and occasionally would watch the next-day replay on TV. Usually the way the TV play-by-play announcer called the game added info and was consistent with what he saw with his own eyes, but other times it was not.
  • Jim and his brother would watch 1980s Boston Celtics playoff games on TV with the sound down and listen to the play-by-play from famously gravel-voiced and highly impassioned hometown announcer Johnny Most (If you’ve never heard Most you’ve got to check it out). Jim said it was like watching one game while listening to a different one.

“Lordy”

Rich took a similar approach to the Senate hearing with James Comey by watching it on C-SPAN without added commentary or info other than the names of the speakers. Each of the subsequent stories in the New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and other outlets had slightly a different emphasis on certain points but were similar overall. Fox News instead focused on Comey’s leaking of his meeting notes and his past decisions in the Clinton investigation. But Comey’s forceful comments about ongoing Russian meddling in US elections didn’t get more play until days later. It wasn’t that one news organization was more accurate than the other. Rather, he could use those different reports to sort out facts and form further questions. “Bias” didn’t matter much because he could still form his own views on the testimony and the coverage. By the way, that’s part of the “Chase It Down” process we mentioned in Episode 27.

Try that some time when an important hearing or event takes place. Make your own notes on what you saw and heard and check it against what several news organizations reported. Get as much straight factual info as you can and still use the pros to get the news to you.

The most important thing is not relying on any one news source. Check others and be sure to include sources that you may not look at often or at all. If you’re a New York Times reader check out The Wall Street Journal and Fox News. If you’re Fox News regular then check out the New York Times or Washington Post. Use the AP or Reuters for straight news coverage especially on breaking news.

Plenty of Verifiable Facts To Go Around

“Bias?” Sure. And so what? There’s no need to BYOF. Whether it’s sports or politics or anything else, there’s a lot of value in gathering as much factual information and opinion as you can and still think for yourself. You can and should still chase down the facts as well as you can. That includes using multiple sources including the ones you think are “biased.” You’ll learn more and have a better understanding of the news you consume.

BLOG – The Dogged Daze of News

We’ve said, “It’s OK To Take A News Break!” We’re going to revise that here and say, “You’ve GOT To Take A News Break!”

By any measure the past two (and counting) weeks of news have been crazy, nuts, exhausting or any other adjectives you care to apply. It’s overwhelming even for us, an experienced journalist and a veteran communications professional who are lifetime news junkies with very high capacities and tolerances.

We used to think of slow days as something bland to be dealt with, sort of “the dog days” of news. But lately we find ourselves in a shell-shocked “dogged daze” of news wishing for a few days or even a day, a single day, where only regular or “normal” things happened. We’re not trying to figure out how to fill the time but instead how to un-fill it.

It takes work and willpower. It just does. It involves a combination of selectively turning off parts of your mind and shifting your attention to something that’s still engaging and adds perspective and energy. It doesn’t always work but it’s all we’ve got. We can’t tell you how to do it but we can offer a few suggestions:

  • Be a little less social: Nothing at all against social media but it can be more of a hindrance than help when you’re on news overload. Twitter and Facebook pull at you to tap or click on that icon addictively hoping to get another hit of information that might ease your anxiety or lead to some sensible outcome. This rarely, if ever, works. Reduce the time you spend on them or set aside specific times of day to check your feeds. Instagram can actually be a pleasant respite from the noise. Try checking that instead of Twitter when you first wake up.
  • Be a little less buzzy: You could turn your news app notifications off for a day (or two) or turn off lock screen notifications and sounds on those apps to help you take a break. Given the recent end-of-day news bombshell trend you could wait until then to turn them back on or wait until the next morning. Either way, you won’t really miss anything. Your stress level may decrease while your ability to focus increases.
  • Stop the presses: Skip past the email news alerts in your inbox or only read what’s in the subject line and preview. Chances are the story will continue to be updated during the day and you’ll get a more complete version if you read it later. If something seems worth your immediate attention you can read the message content but don’t click through to the story. But be very, very picky or you’ll be down the news rabbit hole faster than you can say, “Oh my god, what now?!”
  • Go retro: Try the old-school way of getting your news and let your morning newspaper – the real, printed paper — be your filter for a day or two. Or, listen to the radio news at the top of the hour and hold off for one of the evening network newscasts or the more in-depth PBS Newshour. Note what kind of stories you get and note how differently you consume the news from those media. That may be the most important information you’ll get from the effort.
  • Go deep: If you’re an incurable and irrecoverable news junkie like us, there is still hope. If you can be less moth-like and fly away from the irresistible flame of news then take the opportunity to read, listen to or watch longer-form journalism. Read news features and opinion pieces on current events including reputable ones from outside your comfy news/opinion bubble. It still engages you but leaves brain space to think and get other perspectives. There are a huge number of great podcasts out there like RadioLab or Death, Sex & Money for varied interviews and general topics. National Review and Commentary Magazine discussions on the right or Pod Save America and Rachel Maddow on the left among others dive into political analysis. If you need to step further away do some research on the Presidential impeachment process or read about the origins of the never-been-used 25th Amendment. They’ve been in the news a LOT and people throw the terms around without really understanding what they’re about or how complex and wrenching they could be. Use your video streaming services to watch documentaries on recent American history like “OJ: Made in America” on Hulu or CNN’s series “The “Sixties,” “The Seventies” or “The Eighties” on Netflix. You’ll learn some stuff, brush up on forgotten knowledge and put current events into a broader perspective.

Not only is it OK to take a break, it’s almost a requirement. We do what works for us but we may be poor role models. For example, Jim works in a national broadcast newsroom and reads and listens to news constantly. And Rich follows close to two dozen daily, weekly monthly or web-only news sources, plus a number of podcasts and a smattering of video news clips. But if we’re that engaged (or obsessed depending on your POV) and can still find ways to do it you probably have a decent chance of succeeding.

Please let us know what you do and what works. Really. We’re interested. We need all the help we can get.

BLOG: Headline. Source. Report. Cross-check.

Readers and listeners have told us that they appreciate our bits of advice including “be your own editor” and “wait for it.” But they also have asked us, “Ok, but can you tell me how to do that?”

Here’s a four-step, mental checklist to place you actively and efficiently in control of your own news consumption. We call it “Chase It Down.” It’s as much a series of looping steps as it is a way of thinking about how you interact with the news. Those steps are: Headline, Source, Report and Cross-check.

HEADLINE

The wording of a headline will tell you what the story is about and whether or not you should spend your time on it. This is especially true for social media which often is worded to get you to react. Keeping this in mind will help you avoid wasting time on stories that are not very important, accurate or informative.

Also watch for differences between headlines on news stories and those on opinion or editorial pieces. If you’re not sure then look to see if the article is labeled as opinion or appearing in a news or opinion section.

SOURCE

If a headline seems worth checking you next look to see which media organization is publishing the story. Checking the media source before you click helps you identify the ones that deserve your attention first. Use the mainstream media first. They’re not always right and some are better than others, but they are better at it then most of us. Advocacy and other sites are good for getting different perspectives on the news but your first and main job as a news user is to determine the facts as well as you can.

You might prefer some mainstream sources over others but avoid dismissing any just because you don’t like their editorial pages. Go by the quality of the reporting (and go buy the quality of the reporting if you like it and subscribe!).

REPORT

Now it’s time to report. Start by giving the news site a quick once-over to set your reading, viewing or listening priorities. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first few paragraphs of a story to determine if you want to read the whole thing now, later or not at all. Also note the reporter’s byline. You’ll develop familiarity with and confidence in a specific beat reporter’s work. That’s important on major national and local news coverage.

Look to see which officials or individual sources are cited in the story as well as their credentials and background. Make a mental note to see if statements in the story are supported with more detail.

Pay attention to the questions that naturally arise in your head as you go through a story and make sure they’ve been answered by the end. That sets up the fourth step of the Chase It Down process.

CROSS-CHECK

Continue to “Chase It Down” by reading stories about the same subjects in other media sources. The idea is to get a broader sense of what’s going on and become more resistant to news bubbles and to the inherent distorting effects of social media.

For example, do the facts of a New York Times story on the federal budget, a tax proposal or another issue align with what and how the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Reuters, Fox News or others have? If there are differences what are they? Are specific elements of a story factually in agreement but placed in a different context? Who is quoted in those stories? This is fundamental cross-checking. You can do it with as few as two media sources. But you can’t do it if you’re only getting your news from one source.

The internet makes that very easy. You can at least look at a few articles on another site in any part of the country before hitting a paywall if there is one.

You’re In Charge

Use the four steps as shortcuts to help you figure out what news to consume and how to do it efficiently. You’ll naturally develop more fluency the more you do it and can modify the process to suit your needs and preferences. But however you do it you start with the mindset and intention to “Chase It Down.”

Let us know how “Chase It Down” works for you. We’d love to get your feedback and suggestions.