Concentration of news origination can lead to repeated errors in media

At first glance it looks as if Americans have an abundance of news sources at their fingertips—at least the majority of us with easy access to the Internet. But as other public relations professionals may have noticed, sources of real news have shrunk substantially.  Most of the news we see is repackaged from other sources, sometimes as a news story and sometimes with the spin of opinion attached.

A few years back, the Pew Research Center conducted an in-depth analysis of news reporting in one city, Baltimore, which found that daily newspapers are responsible for 50% of all original news reporting. Most of the local media would pick up stories from the local newspaper or from wire services. Today there are fewer wire services, but most significantly, there are many fewer daily newspapers and those still around have fewer reporters in search of original news.

As consumers of news, we easily and naturally overlook how concentrated the sources of news generation have become in recent years. As a public relations professional, though, I frequently see the results of news concentration. The other day it led to many news stories that were completely inaccurate and had the potential of harming the reputation of a very effective and responsible social service organization. The funny part, though, is that at the heart of the misinformation was a reporter misinterpreting a sentence written in the passive construction. It therefore took an act of bad writing to set off a chain of misjudgments and standard practices that led to erroneous information on several TV stations and in several newspapers.

Here’s how it happened: A child nearly drowned during swimming at a summer day camp operated by a social service agency. The child was fine and didn’t have to go to the hospital, but as is normal protocol, the social service agency reported the incident to the appropriate regulatory body. After an inspection, the regulator decided to revoke the license of the summer camp because not all the camp staff was following every safety protocol. The social service agency then decided on its own to close down the swimming programs of the other 20 some-odd summer camps it operates for a few days to do a thorough inspection of each, retrain all the staff and make sure that all the staff knew and were following all the safety protocols. Of course, a parent or two called the daily newspaper, which published an accurate report.

Unfortunately, that accurate report contained the sentence, “Each camp site must be inspected and approved before it can reopen for aquatics.” Note the passive construction, which does not require the writer to tell us who is doing the inspecting and approving. In point of fact, it was the social service organization, acting on its own behalf and through no request of any regulatory agency or pressure by any other organization, which decided to close the programs and inspect. No one had been hurt, but the organization was bending over backwards to protect the children in its charge.

Unfortunately, the rewrite professional at the Associated Press (AP) did not do any research or fact-checking when he or she abridged the story into one paragraph. That one paragraph claimed that the regulatory body had closed all the camps and had to approve them before they could reopen again. To avoid the passive, the re-writer had to attribute the actions to someone, and so he or she made an assumption that it was the regulator. Wrong information, and liable to give the public a false impression of the social service agency.

Several TV stations and many regional newspapers reprinted or read the Associated Press story during the few hours that it was posted.  The social service organization—a client of my company—called me at 10:00 at night and I had to call several local TV stations and the AP to get the story corrected. It was no problem, at all: everyone was very professional. They made the change once I had properly identified myself.  The TV stations dropped the story, because it was no longer newsworthy for TV. A regulatory body asking an organization to close down more than 20 camps is definitely newsworthy. But an organization volunteering to double-check or police itself may or may not be newsworthy; a newspaper may have room for the story, but local TV news likely won’t.

It took two and maybe three mistakes by two (or three) very reliable and professional organizations for incorrect news to get out:

  1. The social service organization and its PR counselor (my company!) may or may not have made a mistake by deciding not to distribute a news release that would have specified that it was the organization and not some regulatory body that acted. If and when to release information is the most difficult question for public relations practitioners. On the one hand, subsequent events revealed that it wasn’t much of a news story. On the other hand, if the organization had distributed a news release, it is less likely that a media outlet would have misreported the story. Never an easy call
  2. The writer of the original story made a mistake in style against which I often rage in print and with my staff: a passive construction that created a misleading sentence.
  3. The AP made an assumption from the passively-constructed sentence that was just inaccurate. The mistake was not taking the time to check the facts.

But let’s be clear, the harm to the organization came in not one story, but in many stories misreporting the facts. And the reason so many got it wrong is that so little original reporting is being done. Any of the TV stations or newspapers that ran the AP could have made a phone call to double-check the information (one TV station actually did call and got the story right). Yet it was not a mistake that these re-users of the AP story were making—it was business as usual.

One more proof that to a great degree, the news has become like casual dining restaurants: whichever restaurant you go to, you’ll have your choice of essentially the same menu. The name and brand are different, and maybe one has a spicy sauce and another offers something sweet, but the contents are the same.

The same is true of hard news today. We see it everywhere, but most of the people reporting or commenting on it got the information from somewhere else. Thus whatever the brand, you’re essentially getting the same news. Try reading daily newspapers from two different cities. You’d be surprised at how many have the same stories and even the same columnists. Or consider how all the media in one region cover the same story. Yes, sometimes the liberal newspaper will spin the story one way, while the right-wing radio station will spin it another, but the facts and quotes will mostly be the same. One media outlet does the story and everyone else just accepts its version and goes from there.


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