The Weekly Media Trainer: Part 2

By George Merlis Thursday, March 26, 2009

What Is News?

Last week I explained how executives could make the media work for them and why they should consider media encounters, specifically interviews, as opportunities, rather than challenges. Also, I listed and described my Five Commandments of Interviews, the most fundamental rules for media mastery.

A key element in that mastery is understanding the current media scene, so today, I’ll explore the definition of news.  Only seven years ago, in 2002, I wrote my first book on the subject, How To Make the Most of Every Media Encounter. In it, I didn’t bother defining news, instead I relied on the general perception of what news was; in other words, the dictionary definition.  By 2007, when I wrote my second media guide, How to Master the Media, news had evolved so much I decided the dictionary definition wasn’t sufficient, I had to add a practical definition of the word.  Here is what I came up with:

Dictionary definition: news [nooz, nyooz] a report of recent event; intelligence; information.
Practical definition:  news [nooz, nyooz] a report that captures and holds an audience’s attention.

Today’s media environment is like Niagara Falls: unending, relentless, LOUD!  News -- or what passes for it -- comes to us from radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, online and on our smart phones.  It is inescapable.  While producing a television documentary recently, a colleague went to one of the most remote places on earth: Surtsey -- a barren island that is the planet’s newest land mass. Surtsey, formed by an underwater volcano off the coast of Iceland in 1963, is just an uninhabited rock in the ocean, a 40-minute helicopter ride from the nearest human habitat.  Yet, my colleague’s Blackberry functioned there and he could access the world’s news. More recently, in the ancient Inca city atop Machu Picchu in Peru, our guide stopped amid the ruins to make a call on his cell phone.  Had it been a smart phone, he could have also accessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average, checked the Associated Press headlines or scrolled through the opinion pages of his favorite newspaper.

Because of the information cascade, today’s media must compete for our attention and so they are driven by five “F” words -- all of them acceptable to the FCC for broadcasting.  They are: Fear, Fury, Fame, Fun and Fascination.

Fear -- The media love stories that scare you.  If you’re frightened, they’ve got your attention.  When I moved to Los Angeles from New York 25 years ago, the local broadcast media were hysterically reporting on the implacable advance of Africanized killer bee swarms from Mexico.  Here it is a quarter century later and the bees still haven’t arrived, but now they’ve been replaced by fear-mongering coverage of mosquitoes bearing West Nile Virus. Every recent summer our local media -- particularly the broadcasters -- have beaten that drum, despite the fact that local authorities have done an outstanding job of eradicating the bugs.

Fury -- The media are biased.  They are biased in favor of a good, furious argument.   If the argument is based on something emotional -- especially something scary -- all the better because that combines fear and fury.  Coming up in the Fury/Fear media cross hairs: construction of new nuclear power plants.  Since there is a nuclear component in current clean energy and energy independence plans, we are going to read, hear and see impassioned media debates that will invoke Three Mile Island and the far more serious Chernobyl accident of 1986.  While the media know full well that comparing newly designed plants with the shoddily-engineered, slovenly-run Chernobyl is like comparing the Wright Flier to a Boeing 777, facts will play second fiddle to emotion in many media outlets.  One of my big challenges as a media trainer is equipping clients to respond when they are on the defense against highly emotional arguments in major controversies.

Fame -- The media love stories about the famous or those they can make famous.  If I were to be stopped by the police for driving with an unsecured infant in my lap, it would not be a story.  Britney Spears does it and it’s news.  Similarly, if the checkout clerk at your local supermarket went off to kidnap her romantic rival, it would not be much of a story.  But if the would-be kidnapper is an astronaut, that’s a different story because the media can make her famous.

Fun -- The media likes funny stories and stories they can have fun with.  Hence, if the would-be astronaut/kidnapper is wearing an adult diaper so she won’t have to make pit stops on her way to meet her rival, it’s all the more compelling a news story.

Fascination -- Since most stories executives want to tell are not fearsome, do not involve fury, have no famous players and are not, in and of themselves, funny, we can be thankful that the media still respond to “gee whiz,” “I didn’t know that” sorts of stories. I include in the fascination category “news you can use” stories: How to save money, how to improve your health, how to look younger, act wiser, raise brilliant children, etc.

Check back in next week to learn about Crafting Your Interview Agenda.

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