Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s adviser, used the term “alternative facts” in speaking to Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” on Jan. 22. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s adviser, used the term “alternative facts” in speaking to Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” on Jan. 22. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The beat down of the mainstream media in recent years has been painful to watch, if for no other reason than research shows much of it is preventable.

At the root of the disintegration of the image of American media today is the misplaced belief by the media that if you make sure you include the views of political handlers or operatives (also known as “hacks”) in every news segment or every newspaper interview, you will show your audience you are unbiased. My research suggests it does just the opposite.

So why talk to them?

That is just one of the corrective measures the mainstream media can take today to get your reputations back. It begins with having the media quit playing the political operatives’ game and get back to yours. Here’s how:

  1. Quit thinking you must quote or interview political operatives from both sides to show you are balanced in your reporting. Operatives are not experts on virtually anything—other than defending their candidates or political parties—and in this day of “attack the messenger” strategies, they have perfected the art of condemning members of the media as biased and as peddlers of “fake news” anytime they disagree with a story, no matter how factual the story is. My research could not be clearer on this matter: Allowing operatives to routinely question your news stories doesn’t make you seem less biased; it makes you seem more biased—because the audience believes the operatives more than they believe you. Case in point: The uproar by the Trump folks over reporting of the inaugural turnout. Why did so many of the mainstream media feel compelled to interview Trump’s Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway about it? She is far from an expert on this subject, and she is loath to ever admit Trump lies. She merely suggests the reporters are the liars instead. And when she does that, she wins; you lose. Stop doing it. Instead, interview experts—fire marshals, chiefs of police, etc.—to get the facts, report them, and move on. Giving Conway a forum only plays on her turf, the turf that says her job is to merely call you biased and call your product “fake” every time you challenge her or her “alternative facts.”
  1. Quit feeling you must put a Democratic and a Republican operative on every news analysis segment or in every article. They only confuse the viewers, listeners or readers. My research shows that when a story includes the commentary of political operatives—often commentary criticizing the reporter as biased if the operative disagrees with them—at best viewers and readers believe the story reported must be biased or, at worst, the story is biased and the reporter is the operative. Moreover, when news organizations don’t use operatives and instead use experts who have no political bias, viewers or readers don’t seem to miss the perspective given by the operatives. Instead, they see the stories as more accurate, while they do not see the reporters as biased.

Election '16: Lessons for Journalism

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As journalists continue to critique their coverage of the presidential election, Nieman Reports is publishing an ongoing series of articles exploring the issues, challenges and opportunities—from newsroom diversity to fake news to community news outlets—that will inform reporting going forward. Click here to see the full list of articles.

  1. Quit letting operatives, or anyone else, tell viewers that your news reporting is fake. You need to stop and refute this claim when it is made. Don’t ignore it or assume people won’t believe the operatives. People do believe this charge when it goes unanswered. When operatives call you biased or say your news is fake, these actually are not attacks on the news you are reporting, they are attacks on you as a person. In the business of political consulting, these are known as character attacks, and every study out there says when your character is attacked, you must respond immediately to refute it. If you don’t, the public believes the charges are true.
  1. Know your stuff. Document everything as much as you can—and provide sources—on the air or in written stories, so that when an operative says you are offering your opinion, you can let the public know with no uncertainty that it is not an opinion but is backed up with credible sources.
  2. Wrap your arguments in values. You are merely trying to get to the truth; you are being responsible when you force the operatives to be honest; government is too important for the public to be lied to by self-serving operatives. Audiences connect to values.
  3. Don’t let the political operatives convince America there is a liberal bias in the media. The truth is quite the contrary. Research I did in the late 1980s and again in 2005 shows that when all media platforms in America are tested—such as smaller daily and weekly newspapers, local radio and TV news, instead of just a few of the major news organizations—media content in America is actually skewed dramatically to the right, not the left. That research showed in fact that 80 percent of the slanted news, and a similar percentage of news organizations in America, are conservative, not liberal. The simple fact is that the “liberal” media branding is a myth, or in the parlance of the right, fake news.

The bottom line is, mainstream media are playing into the hands of political operatives by giving them a forum that ignores the true story and instead lets operatives question their facts. Simply, quit talking to the operatives and get back to the basics of getting the story with strong documentation from experts. And if you do include the operatives, quit letting them tell the audience that you are biased and your product is fake. This is an attack on you, not on your news story.

Doing these things will well serve you and your audiences, while it also might actually help preserve our representative democracy.

 

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