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Fareed Zakaria on his news analysis program GPS this morning juxtaposed two statistics:

  1. Global terrorist related deaths over the past year totaled just over 36,000.
  2. U.S. gun deaths over the same period totaled around 33,000.

I offer some observations about these grim statistics: The public seems to be more traumatized about the overseas terrorist-related deaths, yet the U.S. gun deaths of almost the same scope are so much closer to home, in every sense.

Our current and prospective U.S. political leaders seem more inclined to take global action (air strikes, ground troops, even open war) over the offshore terrorist threats than to take domestic legislative and other actions to curtail gun deaths right here inside U.S. borders.

While both issues turn around violence, and represent threats to living peaceful lives, the odd weighting of attitudes begs the question: Are Americans reacting more to the sensationalist scare of terrorism abroad or the very real threat of violent death in our own backyards?

What the hell is wrong with our people, from the highest in leadership to our friends down the street? While terrorist threats from abroad are real, the proximate terrorist threat is from fellow Americans, and our society and leadership seem incapable of dealing with it, though other countries around the world have long since done so.

We have so much to learn…

“Earned Media” is one of the most-used expressions in the world of public relations. It refers to the media coverage given to an issue, person, product or brand that is covered as news because of its potential appeal to readers, viewers or listeners, and not because it was paid for by an advertiser. Earned Media is free media coverage as opposed to paid media coverage.

Back when I was doing public relations work for corporations and not-for-profits, we would take pride when the quality of our messages and messengers on behalf of these clients would be perceived by the news media or worthy of coverage as news for their audiences. Our PR agencies or departments would receive praise and great credit from management for “Earning” such free media coverage based upon the merits and creativity of the messages we crafted. Such “earned media” coverage was usually seen as more credible and thus more valuable than messages we purchased as advertising. Though we could precisely choose how to phrase and present our own messages in advertising, it was seen as much more valuable when such messages were communicated through credible news people, who supposedly selected what to cover as “news” based upon its editorial   worthiness and suitability to their target audiences.

But in today’s news, when “infotainment” is the new norm in so-called news coverage, and entertainment value trumps (pardon the expression) real news content, it is increasingly embarrassing to professional communicators to see gratuitous coverage of political foolishness passed off as “earned media.” The public relations profession either needs a new term for real news that  “earns” its place in news coverage versus advertising, or else infotainment that tries to pass for “earned Media” should perhaps just be called what it is — “Goofy Media!”.

Why are the so-called Presidential debates more of a grab-ass sideshow than a discourse on the issues? It is the overarching commitment of the mainstream and cable networks to what has become known as “infotainment.” Old fashioned “news” has become totally polluted with entertainment value, in the quest to make news shows generate substantial ratings and be profitable. Back in the days when there were fewer news choices on TV, and in the era of public television, the news programs were not known as “shows” and  could stand on their own. Now the formula must contain fun and blatantly heartwarming segments, in addition to the sensational “if it bleeds, it leads” content on disasters, fires and mayhem. The hell with issues that a democratic society should care about, such as economics, education, jobs, legislation, et al.

These so-called televised Presidential debates, of course, are not debates at all; they are “showcases” for the potential candidates, and at the most, political forums. The interviewers focus on provocations and personal attacks, and not on straight forward exploratory questions on the main issues. They seem designed to take of time and space, and sell commercials, rather than provide useful information. Yes, the audiences are probably larger than they would be if boring “issue” questions predominated, but thoughtful viewers are left with a thin gruel of content.

What is needed? Separate “information” from “entertainment,” subsidizing the “news,” to the extent necessary with profits from the entertainment divisions of the media. If the journalists and the journalism are of a high calibre, the news does not have to be boring, even it it is substantially devoid of laughs and sensationalism. And please, a debate should be about two people being challenged to discuss their views on real issues. Anything else is not a debate. Maybe a “showcase” or maybe a “forum,” or maybe just a free-for-all. Just call it a “reality show,” and put “infotainment” where it belongs, and stop wasting our attention span on political trivia.

November 2015
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