Outlook 2017: The Mainstream Media Tipping Point
PHILADELPHIA – By Christopher Lukach, APR, President, Anne Klein Communications Group
It’s a tough time to write an outlook article, especially when you consider just how disappointing a year 2016 turned out to be for media prognosticators.
OK, “disappointing” is too polite; it was abysmal. The mainstream media whiffed.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, if you’re among the one in three Americans who somehow has retained trust in the amorphous, poorly defined institution known as “the mainstream media,” 2016 gave even you good reason to question your allegiance.
Surely mass media is not the only major institution to carry a less-than-stellar perception among Americans. According to Gallup’s 2016 confidence polling, religious institutions (41 percent), the Supreme Court (36 percent), organized labor (23 percent), big business (18 percent), and Congress (6 percent) all have confidence levels among Americans below 50 percent.
Is the quirky little “confidence” statistic the least bit meaningful?
Come the summer of 2017, when Gallup conducts its annual polling and we see confidence in the media statistic has slumped even further in 2017 – as it undoubtedly will – what should we as communicators feel? Plenty of other institutions manage to function, even with negligible balances in the bank of goodwill. After all, despite only one in 20 Americans being confident in Congress, Americans re-elected 97 percent of Congress’ incumbent officeholders in 2016.
Why can’t mass media exist as these other institutions – untrusted but undeterred?
As I see it, discussions about declining trust in mainstream media miss the point. In looking at the trend line, it’s clear that trust in mainstream media has been an issue for decades; Mainstream media hasn’t earned a confidence rating above 50 percent since 2003. But add to this decline in trust a varied buffet of new, upstart, independent media options … competition that appeals to changing consumer appetite.
News consumers once looked to media to be informed; now, increasingly, they look to media to be validated. And no matter how far-out, how polarizing, or how conspiracy-theorist a person’s point of view, some media outlet will validate it. It’s confirmation bias in action.
Considering all these factors, 2017 is shaping up to be something of a perfect storm for mainstream media. For communicators, the dissolution of mainstream (traditional) media is a double-edged sword.
Over the past decade, communicators moaned as traditional media outlets decimated staff, dried up, and shrunk our highly prized rolodexes. Now, consider the sheer volume of upstart online media outlets – each with both editorial needs and a willingness to accept our advertising dollars. The media look different from the landscape we had a decade ago, but, in some senses, our options are increasing.
So, there — a sliver of silver lining.
As crisis communicators, we see the media landscape as filling with even more landmines. Heightened distrust in mainstream media means a leveling of credibility with those independent and smaller-distribution media outlets – the outlets that aren’t held to the same standards of truth, impartiality or editorial accountability. The aim of these outlets is to nod along with its readership, not to force critical thought.
At AKCG, we encourage clients to follow a multi-point assessment to determine whether or not they should respond to crises originating in the media, and most of the characteristics we assess have to do with the source of the message – its credibility, its reach, its tone and its audience. In 2017, I expect the way we assess these indicators to change dramatically.
And those misinformation-fueled crises that, to this point, may not have been dignified with action or even acknowledgement now will need to be given full consideration. In 2017, a brand may need to respond to, say, a conspiracy-driven attack podcaster, with the same vigor it may have reacted to a story originating in The New York Times.
But, I’ve learned my lesson in 2016 – prognostication for 2017 is something that should be approached with caution. I’ve been humbled.
If mainstream media is to regain credibility and stem the erosion of trust, a little collective humility may be the place to begin.
Christopher Lukach, APR, is president of Anne Klein Communications Group. AKCG is the Philadelphia office of IPREX Global Public Relations and Communication.