Episode 32: Don’t Get Sucked In

It’s only human to react to some news stories, especially the ones that have an impact on you. But other stories are meant to get you to react — clicks and shares define success for many publishers. That’s fine, but what if your reactions are causing you to miss the substance and meaning of some news stories, especially the ones that have an impact on you? We give you a big example as well as tips to help get and keep you informed.

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.

Episode 31: BYOF

You think some mainstream news organizations are “biased”? So what! Don’t “Bring Your Own Facts” by cherry-picking only the info you like. Ignore “bias” or set it aside. Go for accuracy, use multiple new sources to get the facts and still think for yourself.