Do we need to set up a Society for the Protection of Mainstream Media? It might be tempting to think so. These two words are now seen as a term of abuse in some quarters, with ad revenues dropping and influence in apparent decline, as the focus in some quarters switches to the new social media influencers and direct-to-the-public communication. I’m glad to say I believe newspapers, radio and TV have a lot more life in them yet, and remain core for the PR community. However they need to up their game. In the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election victory we might ask if the truth is no longer sacred; does nobody seems to care any more about this? Indeed, ‘post-factual’ has been named International Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.
There has indeed been scattergun use of blatantly dodgy statistics in recent political debate, with contradictory policy statements, scare stories, personal attacks on opponents in place of policy analysis, and deliberate misrepresentation of their viewpoints. None of this has encouraged us to believe what we read in the papers or see on TV. Meanwhile ‘fake news’ websites have become established, encouraged by Facebook algorithms that push made-up stories into the news feeds of individuals at the expense of a balanced and varied news diet. If you find the idea of such websites far-fetched and imagine they are unlikely to gain credibility with anyone, take a look at this Washington Post article on blatant and cynical make-it-up merchants. At the same time, more and more people are getting their news through the prism of social media news feeds which only reinforce their own views or play on their fears and prejudices – the so-called ‘echo chamber’ effect which Facebook and others are now being challenged to resist. Christiane Amanpour, the highly-respected CNN correspondent, calls all of this an ‘existential threat to journalism’. Many would argue that newspapers and the TV networks have only themselves to blame. They have struggled to reflect many of their viewers and readers’ views, stuck in the bubble of the ‘liberal, metropolitan elite’. Indeed, newspapers can and do get it very wrong; on the right in Britain the Mail and Sun have antagonised many by their blatantly biased Brexit coverage, while at the other end of the spectrum the Guardian was caught up in the fake ‘traingate’ Jeremy Corbyn story, suggesting Britain’s trains are so overcrowded that the Labour leader couldn’t get a seat on his way to Newcastle, when in fact he walked past rows of empty ones. So, no-one can really claim the moral high ground with much conviction.
But I am convinced that the more responsible newspapers and broadcast news, despite their failings, still have a vital role to play. They continue to reach millions of people, and there remains an enormous demand for ‘curated’ news and opinion, covering a range of views from which the reader/viewer can draw his or her own conclusions, knowing that the facts will have been checked and will be accurate, at least most of the time. Fortunately, most influencers, including politicians and PRs, still recognise the central importance of media relations, despite the widening complexity of the media landscape. More people read about a twitterstorm via Mail Online or The Sun than they do on twitter itself. Without lapping up their every word as the gospel truth, we should buy, watch and cherish the best of the mainstream media. They are far from perfect, but they’re the best we’ve got – and a lot better than most of the alternatives.
An earlier version of this blog appeared on Huffington Post.