Like many people around the world I was gripped by the live TV coverage of the US presidential election last month.
Breaking news of the results made for compulsive viewing.
But I was also fascinated for another reason: the way that many major news organisations have now given up all pretence of offering balanced and impartial reporting.
In the blue corner we had CNN, unremittingly anti-Trump and openly delirious when it appeared that Joe Biden would win. In the red corner Fox News, unashamedly pro-Trump, pro-Republican.
This polarisation was mirrored across many different news outlets. It may be a result of the Trump presidency which has seen the outgoing president repeatedly attack media he deemed hostile to his cause.
But there is a deeper and more complex phenomenon in play here. The rise of a multiplicity of media outlets which the revolution in digital technology has produced has in turn brought into question the whole idea of balanced and impartial reporting.
Of course, there has always been differing shades of opinion or bias in political reporting and that is true all over the world. But the age of balance and impartiality across every kind of media – from business and economics reporting, to the coverage of everyday developments – is coming to a close.
The noble ideas of balance and impartiality are well and truly dated and we have entered a new era of polemical news gathering which can often degenerate into cynicism and propaganda.
This change is taking place across every kind of media as journalists no longer see the need to ‘give the other side’ of the story.
One of the reasons for this is the instantaneous, ‘rolling’ nature of news reporting.
If something gets misreported on a news website at 10am it can be updated or ‘corrected’ by 10.30am.
It takes the pressure off busy journalists who operate at high speed under pressure in an environment which encourages them to be first with the news – but not necessarily accurate with the news.
This development throws the whole debate of balance ‘within news items’ or balance ‘between news items’ into sharp perspective.
For news ‘consumers’ it has made the process far more difficult to understand and the question: which news source can I trust? even more difficult to answer.
The interdependent nature of the mainstream media with online social media has also created this situation which explains why so many people now simply do not trust any news outlet to provide them with unbiased, truthful, fair and accurate news.
A study by Rutgers University last year found public trust in the mainstream media at an all-time low. It also found that people’s interactions online significantly influence whether or not they believed what they then read in mainstream media outlets.
In other words, many people will more readily believe what they see or hear from others on social media than what they see in the mainstream news outlets. And other studies show that like-minded people tend to congregate with other people with the same likes/ dislikes and opinions online which may explain why many societies are becoming more polarised in their thinking and attitudes.
This presents challenges for professional communicators as there is a need to keep a keen eye on the ‘shifting moods’ of social media as much as on anything being said in the mainstream media.
It has made the whole idea of attempting to ‘influence’ public opinion/ thinking a lot more complex and challenging.
That said, there are some everlasting touchstones for communicators to hold close at this time of rapid change in the increasingly polarised media landscape.
It may sound old fashioned, but it always works well, particularly when issues have to be communicated with urgency: opinions may be one thing, but facts are sacred.
At this time of growing public cynicism towards the media and professional communicators in general, it’s our duty to ensure that what we say is factually correct at all times. If that means taking time to double fact-check and then even doing it once more, then so be it.
We must of course in the first instance protect our clients’ interest as strongly as possible, but we must also ensure that when we represent them in the court of public opinion – both online and in the mainstream media – what we say on their behalf is both true and factually correct.
Nothing less will do.