Behind the Curtain: How Media Influences You

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beer-behind-the-curtain-1552637-1600x1200Many people know how I make my living. Every day I go to the office, sit behind six flat screens spewing economic and corporate data, and meticulously scan lists upon lists of publicly traded companies in search of winning stocks. On the face of it, you’d think I was a numbers guy. OK, OK, I admit it. I am a numbers guy. But a good numbers guy knows the limits of numbers, and numbers do have limits. The trouble with the stock picking industry is that it believes too much in the numbers. Numbers only tell a (small) part of the story. The bulk of the story is told by behavior – human behavior. That’s what I really do every day. Sure, I look at the numbers, but I’m really looking for clues in behavior. When I started my own firm, people – both professionals and academics – laughed at behavioral finance. Today, everyone is trying to work (the now Nobel prize winning) concept of “behavioral economics” into their marketing spiel. Ironically, even that becomes a factor in the behavioral analysis of stocks, markets, and the broader economy itself.

Perhaps I’ll explain how this works at a future date. For now, I think there’s greater interest (aside from greater timeliness) to explain how the psychology of behavior works in a different industry: journalism.

This past summer we were fortunate enough to have more than a half dozen college and high school students interning for the Sentinel. For some of them – the ones interested in the business of publishing – I gave them a homework assignment to read three books: How to Write a Good Advertisement, by Victor O. Schwab; Ogilvy on Advertising, by David Ogilvy; and, The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use Social Media, Online Video, Mobile Applications, Blogs, News Releases, and Viral Marketing to Reach Buyers Directly, by David Meerman Scott. There was a fourth book I would have assigned, but the relevant interns chose not to go in that direction. That book is Newsjacking: How to Inject your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage, also by David Meerman Scott.

To understand why I assign these books, you need to know the various hats I wear in my role as a journalist. With The Sentinel I serve as publisher. At FiduciaryNews.com, I am Chief Contributing Editor. Finally, for several other national on-line and print publications, I act as both a reporter and as an op-ed columnist. Here’s how those three different jobs interact: A publisher is concerned with making sure the media property remains a sustainable business. Two things drive this: the audience (viewers and readers) and the advertisers. The publisher (or “producer” when it comes to video media) increases audience numbers by distributing attractive content. Higher audience numbers yields more advertisers.

The publisher relies on the editor to arrange for appropriate content and then reliably arrange it in a format that appeals to the target audience. The editor doesn’t often write the articles, but is responsible for reviewing those articles so they reflect a consistent editorial style. Maintaining editorial consistency stands out as a critical component, as audiences generally prefer familiarity. But this is not all that an editor does. An editor leads an army of reporters, carefully guiding them and encouraging them to find, pursue, and follow up on stories the editor feels will create greater audience interest.

The reporter/op-ed writer – the foot soldier in this army – has the duty to develop compelling stories and topics the editor assigns. (The difference being the reporter must limit content to properly sourced facts while the op-ed writer has free reign to incorporate provocative opinion and conjecture.) In this way, the editor will usually provide more direction to the reporter than to the op-ed writer.

This all sounds reasonable and fair. If that’s the case, why is journalism among the least trusted professions? Perhaps an academic article published earlier this year explains why. According the The Guardian (“March 30,” 2016), “In an article published in academic journal Studies in Contemporary History, historian Harriet Scharnberg shows that AP was only able to retain its access by entering into a mutually beneficial two-way cooperation with the Nazi regime. The New York-based agency ceded control of its output by signing up to the so-called Schriftleitergesetz (editor’s law), promising not to publish any material ‘calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home’.”

Does this sound fair and reasonable? Of course not. That’s why media insiders are concerned that email leaks have revealed they have been working hand in hand with the Clinton campaign. How does one reconcile this with the self-imposed “watchdog” mandate the fourth estate has thrust upon itself. It begs the question, if the press is the watchdog, who watches the watchdog (apparently that would be Wikileaks job).

It gets worse. I’ve been privy to conversations among and with major (national) media editors and writers. That they have an inherent editorial bias is now a given. As a reader, you might be curious how they use that bias. It goes far beyond picking what stories to feature. It goes right to the headlines they write. That’s where those books I referred to at the beginning of this article become important.

Ogilvy tell you what themes move the behavior of the target market. Schwab wrote the definitive study  on writing masterful headlines that grab the attention of the audience and moves them to act in the way you desire. Finally, Meerman-Scott shows how to use modern distribution tools to have your content move farther than it would under traditional methods.

Let’s see how this works in real life using a relatively current story. While editorial bias exists in all realms, it’s most easily found when the subject is partisan politics. Here’s an example: In the third and final presidential debate, the match was even until about a third of the way through when the moderator tried twice to pin Clinton down on an answer to her “pay-to-play” problems. She was visibly frustrated and Trump came away with a winning performance – the strongest yet for the successful businessman and political outsider. Indeed, focus groups on both Fox News and CNN confirmed this. Yet, if you didn’t watch the debate and only read the national media, you’d think Donald Trump said he didn’t believe in our constitution (based on his honest final answer that said he couldn’t answer if he’d accept the election results until we see if fraud occurs).

But that’s not all. Here’s where the “editor’s law” comes in play. Let’s assume it was legitimate to ask the question of accepting election results only to Trump and not to Clinton. Again the bias is obvious in that there’s a presumption of who will lose in the very question. But it’s the follow-up that matters. The headline in the New York Times reads “Donald Trump Won’t Say if He’ll Accept Result of Election.” It could have more accurately read “Republican Trump Takes Cue from Democrats Gore, Franken.” Both headlines are technically correct, but notice the difference. In the first, you are being led to believe Trump is against the constitution. In the latter, you’re led to believe Trump is not the usual Republican and is willing to look to Democrats for ideas. (For those who don’t remember, both Al Gore (for president) and comedian Al Franken (for U.S. Senator) refused to accept the results of the election until either the Supreme Court forced them to (in the case of Gore) or multiple recounts until he received enough votes to win (in the case of Franken). Of greater journalistic interest is the Franken’s 2008 recount victory, for in 2010 the Wall Street Journal and US News reported that Franken’s victory may have been the result of voter fraud – precisely what’s at issue in this election.

Sophisticated readers will see through editorial bias. But even sophisticated readers can fall victim to their own confirmation bias and allow editorial bias to unknowingly influence their own behavior. If you really want to learn how to protect yourself from this deceit, I suggest you read The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense Hardcover, by Suzette H Elgin. Though out of print, this 1980s best seller describes to a tee how – not just media mavens, but people you meet in everyday life – use words to subtly take advantage of and unduly trick you into behaving in their best interests, not yours.

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