What Can You Believe?

A key lesson in The Leadership Challenge is the subject of credibility. At its core, credibility means to be believable. Our friends Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (authors of The Leadership Challenge), capture its importance with their statement: “if we don’t believe in the messenger, we will not believe the message. That is one of those pieces of advice that proves true every single day.

There was an article posted in The Cincinnati Enquirer (April 18th), entitled News outlets backtrack on reports of an arrest (Gary Levin, USA Today). Spurred by the recent tragic events in Boston, it pointed out many erroneous statements made by the national media, during big, breaking news events such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the Newtown school shootings. For example, in Boston it was reported that arrests had been made, when they had not, and that the number of deaths was 12, when at the time it was only 2. And in Newtown, the brother of the actual shooter was erroneously identified. One other blunder, related to the health care mandate, was also cited in Levin’s story.

In the article, a most interesting quote was attributed to Paul Levinson, a journalism professor at Fordham University. In downplaying the severity of the errors, he said, “the public wants to be informed and the price of being continually informed is that wrong information comes out.”

Now that caused me to ponder – what does informed really mean? I guess it means that being provided with wrong information is OK, as long as it adds color or more drama to keep the story alive. Sorry, but that sounds more like Hollywood to me, whose product tends to be entertainment, not breaking news. It might also mean that being first in the news business is more important than being right. News is a very competitive business, after all. If that is the case, I fear the concept of what news really is, can only continue to get more and more diluted.

I may not be alone in my perspective. The leading sentence in a summary of a Gallup survey, published in September 2012 read, “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Distrust is up from the past few years, when Americans were already more negative about the media than they had been in years prior to 2004.” Hmm.

We all know that during a breaking story, rumors and “made up stuff” will be spreading like wildfire. Much of what is announced comes from “credible sources” connected with the situation at hand. My conclusion is that some of these credible sources are not so credible after all. No matter how often an assumption or sheer speculation is passed along, it does not magically transform itself into a fact. To be credible, a person – or news organization – must focus on the truth, not the sensational.

In fairness, mistakes will happen, especially when circumstances are spinning out of control. And I have found people to be forgiving, when “honest” mistakes are made. I have also seen work environments (not just media organizations) so stressful around making money, that the truth might be considered a barrier, if it potentially could slow down the inflow of dollars. I am not a national or cable news expert, but I assume there must be a direct link between financial success and being first with the big news. Personally, I could care less if one outlet reports a story 5 minutes earlier than another. I do care if I can trust the information. Maybe I am in the very small minority on this issue.

Let me close by asking you to think about this in your workplace. Your senior people – or your customers – are expecting you to keep them informed on a highly volatile and critical issue. How many times could you pass along bad information as the truth, even in a breathtakingly dramatic manner, and get away with it? It takes years to earn a solid reputation of credibility in any business. You best be aware of the consequences when you choose to compromise it.

Comments

  1. Thoughtful analysis, but let me just clarify my views as suggested in this section:

    “In the article, a most interesting quote was attributed to Paul Levinson, a journalism professor at Fordham University. In downplaying the severity of the errors, he said, ‘the public wants to be informed and the price of being continually informed is that wrong information comes out.’
    Now that caused me to ponder – what does informed really mean? I guess it means that being provided with wrong information is OK, as long as it adds color or more drama to keep the story alive”

    It’s not my view that the source of the errors is the goal of adding “color or more drama” to the story. Rather, I think that errors are inevitable when news sources are working to provide the truth, but working under incredible 24/7 pressure.

    -PL

  2. Thanks Paul,

    I would not survive in the pressure cooker news business, and admire how it all comes together as often as it does. No intent to imply that you were ever OK with errors. They will continue to happen, especially during fast-breaking news. The comment about color and drama is my musings only. I do believe that journalism is a noble profession, with tremendous impact. And so organizations in that industry must be held to very high standards, because their credibility is the foundation of success for them. That is why I hope they will continue to be ever vigilant about the news the present.

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