Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vargas Llosa says democracy is the best defense against propaganda and nationalism

His latest historical novel tells of CIA misinformation campaign

Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate in literature, has just published a historical novel, Tough Times ("Tiempos recios"), whose plot is based on the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected government in Guatemala that was engineered by the CIA. 

Vargas Llosa,  Photo by
For the novelist, that conspiracy has many echoes today in the status of news media organizations and the abundance of information and disinformation available to the general public.

During a publicity tour in Spain, Vargas Llosa gave an interview to El Pais, arguably the country's most prestigious daily. He said that the 1954 coup in Guatemala was masterminded for the CIA by a public relations expert named Edward L. Bernays, whose nickname was "the clever puppetmaster". Bernays's philosophy of communication could be boiled down to a phrase: propaganda will prevail over the truth.

In fact, the media campaign described in the novel was based on what really happened. A propaganda campaign persuaded the elite of Boston "that the interests of the United Fruit Company are the same as the United States, and that the recently inaugurated democracy of Guatemala puts them in jeopardy because of their dependence on the Kremlin". In fact, Soviet influence was exaggerated or non-existent; the government's land policies threatened United Fruit's business interests.

Versión en español

Friday, October 11, 2019

Letters to a newspaper publisher III: A shameful scandal right under your nose

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.  

Alfonso Nieto, photo University of Navarra
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, titled "A Shameful Scandal", Alfonso Nieto criticizes media executives who are focused only on the bottom line without paying attention to the quality of the content in their own publications. (The scandal is a defamation lawsuit against a reporter.)

Nieto also emphasizes the importance of hiring journalists with high ethical standards. "This profession is so prominent that it should exclude those of mediocre character who are untrustworthy, resentful, or selfish" (p. 58).

The top executives of the media organization have the responsibility to communicate clearly the editorial standards of the organization, Nieto says. Without that, there is disorder in the newsroom. In the absence of clear direction, each section editor creates their own fiefdom, and "this disorder is the key that opens the door to misinformation and mistakes" (pp. 59-60).

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Experts explain 'How to make meetings less terrible'

The title of this blog post is taken from a Freakonomics Radio podcast by Steven J. Dubner, and I recommend listening to all 42 minutes of it. But if you can't find the time, here are some of the key points.

How terrible are meetings?
Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, says research has shown that around 70 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. And these are typically the people calling the meetings.

The higher up the chain of command they go, executives attend more meetings. Rogelberg estimates most professionals in the U.S. attend 15 meetings a week."But what we know from the research is that left to just the standard protocols of people talking, that a decision better than what would have just been produced by the best individual in the room only occurs 20 percent of the time." He has written a book on the subject, The Surprising Science of Meetings.

Why are meetings so terrible?

Most meetings are done on a schedule, out of habit, and have no purpose, says Helen Schwartzman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University who wrote the book The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities. "I would say that meetings are the organization. Which is to say that instead of having the meeting as a place to solve problems, we need to have problems and crises and decisions to produce meetings." If there are no problems to be solved, there is no reason to meet.

Letters to a publisher II: Treat your readers with respect

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra portrait
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, which he titled "The dwarf and the giant", Alfonso Nieto criticized media owners, managers, and journalists for failing to take into account the problems and the needs of their readers. Nieto saw the media industry as arrogant, looking down on the public and their viewpoints.

Beyond that, the media viewed their audiences as merely market segments to be lumped into groups based on age, gender, income, occupation, or other attributes that they could monetize. 

The arrogance

The media used a language, he believed, that emphasized their superior education and social position rather than trying to create a more intimate connection with their readers. This could very well describe the traditional media today, which have been losing readers and TV viewers because they focus much of their attention on the conflicts among political parties rather than finding solutions.

Letters to a newspaper publisher: it's not just the bottom line

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. Nieto was one of the pioneers in the discipline of media economics, and his writings have acute relevance today, when the media world has been disrupted again by digital technology. He was rector of the University of Navarra 1979-1991, where I now teach. 

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra Photo
Alfonso Nieto worked as a consultant to media executives in addition to teaching, and in this book he wanted to go public with his advice without violating any confidential information. So he created a fictitious news executive to whom he wrote a series of letters with some down-home advice. He wanted publishers to think not just of their business results and their investors but also of their publication's impact on employees, the audience, and democratic society as a whole. 

(It is interesting to note that the Business Roundtable, an organization of business leaders in the U.S., recently advocated a major change in management philosophy in line with Nieto: take into account all stakeholders--employees, customers, suppliers, and community--not just the shareholders.)

Friday, September 27, 2019

Is six hours a day on my phone too much?

This is the third year I have done an unscientific survey of my students in Media Economics about how they use their smartphones.

"WhatsApp Redesign" by Ayoub Elred is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
The point of the exercise is for them to do their own assessment and make observations. In previous years they simply counted how many notifications or alerts they received on their phones in one hour or a class session. An alert is any ping, buzz, vibration, or lock-screen flash that tells them they have a message or news update from their various applications.

The distraction industry is getting ever more sophisticated in finding ways to get us to pay attention to their messages, because time, or attention, is money. Specifically, it allows tech platforms and news services to deliver targeted ads and make money from our attention.

An alert a minute

This year, 27 students counted notifications received in a 60-minute period. The average was 58, almost an alert a minute. The median --with half registering more, half less-- was 36. (The total alerts received was slightly more than last year and roughly three times the year before, although the unscientific methodology was slightly different each time.)

Friday, September 20, 2019

When it comes to reputation, news media brands have been missing the boat

Cees van Riel is an internationally known scholar and consultant who has spent much of his career studying how to measure the reputation of organizations and use the data for better decision-making.

Cees van Riel. Photo from Reputation Institute
During a recent chat with faculty at the University of Navarra, he talked about how a growing body of research links the financial performance of a company with its reputation as corporate citizen and community leader.

Leaders must speak up
Companies whose leaders and employees specifically say what they stand for, and back that up with their behavior, emerge as leaders in their industry by all sorts of tangible indicators, including but not limited to financial performance.

"You have to say yourself what you stand for," Cees said. "If you don't, no one will believe you."

Cees's observations made me realize that news media have done a terrible job at informing the public about the importance of what they do, namely investigating deeply to discover the truth and informing the public in a democratic society.

News media organizations should be taking this insight to heart, but often they view it as unseemly self-promotion. They assume everyone views them as an authority, as the purveyors of truth and guardians of the public interest. And, of course, they're wrong. Almost everywhere in the world, news media have low credibility. (Trust explored in more depth here.)