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.)

Media have a bad reputation
Lots of media outlets claim to have the latest information or the juiciest gossip or the most sensational images so they can attract attention, sell ads, and make money. But very few of them focus on how they serve the public, if that is part of their mission, or help people in their daily lives.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has found that many people actively avoid the news, because it can't be trusted and negatively affects their mood.  

Media have to declare what they stand for, and then live up to that stated mission. They have started to wake up only now that they are in financial trouble. Their advertisers have fled to cheaper, targeted advertising available from tech platforms like Google, Facebook, and other social media, so now they are reaching out to their users to come to the rescue.

Every article on the Guardian website, one of the UK's most prestigious journalism brands, ends with a sales pitch explicitly tied to its role in society.

Click the image to enlarge it. in Spain, which is known for its editorial independence and focus on corruption at the highest levels of business and government, does something similar: is a free publication, but it issues a call to arms for readers to donate and become "partners" who help create a "better informed society in which concepts like freedom, truth and commitment recover their full validity." is a model of transparency about its mission, its ownership structure, its investors, its managers, details on its revenues and expenses, all of it aimed at gaining credibility with its audience.

At left, is the subscription promotion for The Correspondent, English language version of the very successful digital news website De Correspondent based in the Netherlands.

Notice that they say they are not the news you are used to. Their editor has described their editorial mission as reporting "not what happened today but what happens every day." In other words, the meaning of news events in the daily lives of their readers and users.

Below is a values statement that is part of the subscription campaign for the newspaper whose slogan used to be, "All the news that's fit to print."

And the Times's chief competitor for national and international attention talks of democracy. 
This was the theme of The Post's 2017 Super Bowl ad and ongoing campaign

As someone who personally visited thousands of digital media websites in Spain, Latin America, and other parts of the world and searched their "About Us" links to try to identify their mission, I can say that few offer a comprehensive mission statement backed up by any kind of data.

They do a bad job of saying what they stand for. Or if they do say it, they make it hard for you to find it. If they don't tell you what they stand for, van Riel might say, nobody will. That is a lost opportunity.

An investigative reporter gives tips on how to be more credible
Frustrated fact checkers: the lies keep being told

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