Depiction of cultural divide between liberal media and Southern stereotypes.

True Narratives: What Does Point of View Have to Do with It?

We’ve all heard the derisive term “liberal media” enough to easily conjure up the caricature: a bespectacled navel-gazer looking up from their sheltered environ to cast aspersion on flyover country.

Who exactly is the liberal media? When a certain Alaskan was running for national office and spoke condescendingly of the media elite, I wondered if she was talking about me. I grew up in suburban New Jersey in a town with a view of “the city,” a.k.a. Manhattan. I was raised on a daily diet of morning news from The New York Times and The Star-Ledger, and snacked before dinner on tabloid copy from The New York Post and The Daily News. I graduated from an elite private college and worked as a journalist in East Coast cities, including New York and Washington, D.C.

Is the negative stereotype fair? I was forced to ponder this again after reading a recent Politico opinion piece on the East Coast media being stuck in the Acela corridor and not knowing why the rest of the country hates them. I can relate to this premise in that when I was working for the Baltimore Business Journal, my colleague Sonny made fun of the Washington Post for coming to nearby Baltimore anytime they needed to do a story on the hinterland instead of going anywhere else in the country, say the Midwest or Deep South, etc. Later, when I was working for American Banker in New York and was transferring to the Washington bureau, my editor Debra joked that I was emigrating back to the United States from Manhattan. Granted, I was going inside the Beltway.

But I did notice at my first job in Baltimore that I would meet people when I was doing a story or socializing that had an animus toward “the media” and I thought that was so bizarre. Of course, I was very much a part of that Acela corridor culture.

Later, I moved to Texas and I’ve had other experiences apart from the East Coast, and maybe my perceptions have changed. For instance, I don’t assume every gun owner is a murderer. My friends from home in New Jersey say that I have developed a twang, although they noted when I was in college in the South I was already saying y’all in lieu of you all or you guys.

And there is what I like to call a reverse provincialism for people in the New York metropolitan area who look down on people from other parts of the country, especially the South. When I went to a very Southern school, many of my friends were going to school in New England or elsewhere in the Northeast, per usual for New York suburban people, and they remarked, why are you going down there, they’re still fighting the Civil War, and Southerners are stupid. I recognized really quickly that the Northerners were definitely wrong on the latter assertion, especially when freshman year I was sitting in a 200-level British Literature course and the person with the most astute observations was sitting there in a CAT Diesel trucker hat and speaking with an incredibly thick Southern accent, but he was very eloquent and intellectually incisive.

This brings me back to agree in part with the Politico piece in those veins, but I also think there is a flipside groupthink in which people who condemn the media refuse to recognize that the media is often, if not nearly always, reporting the truth.

The media is a punching bag for all comers. To wit, I keep seeing Facebook posts from friends who are flaming liberals and die-hard right-wingers grousing that events which shake them are being omitted from coverage by mainstream media. Posts with oddly similar phrasing to fill in the blank, such as “anyone notice a lack of coverage of this shooting by a guy who doesn’t fit the lone wolf narrative?” or “anyone notice a lack of coverage of the Keystone oil spill?” A quick Google News search query will result in real news stories on the supposedly skipped stories.

Rather than blame the messenger, these critics are falsely accusing media of not providing the message at all. That’s a lot easier than dissecting the message. It’s also intellectually dishonest. It’s a cop-out to claim that a story was never reported just because you perceive it lacked reach or made the point you wanted it to hit home.

As for substantive critiques of news coverage, it’s also easy to blame the liberal media every time a set of known facts makes your side look bad. I learned this ad nauseam in, of all places, a weight-lifting class in college. The coach made us listen to Rush Limbaugh, who mocked mainstream media for its liberal leanings, according to this poll or the other. Yes, there are liberals in news media and there are also conservatives, the latter of whom in my observation tend to be less animated in their political views, which is a good thing in a newsroom setting.

How ironic is it that as we have more and more information available, we become more entrenched in old perceptions? Well, for starters, the volume of reliable, factual information might be shrinking on a proportional basis as traditional news outlets have shrunk their news staffs. Some people, ever so disbelieving of liberal media, glommed onto what they perceived to be alternative news that is actually fake news. Some information consumers seem more comfortable with fabrications from abroad than factual stories from the East Coast.

What is the solution? I agree the so-called liberal East Coast media should spend more time out and about in the rest of the country. They should also examine whether they are telling such stories as if they are foreign correspondents. Having lived in Texas for 11 years, I hear a certain tone in news reports that betrays a certain degree of ignorance about Southern states’ demographics, cultures and subcultures, and political viewpoints.

Embedding within a domain gives the narrator an opportunity to be more authentic in telling more than just the facts. Being close to a subject to truly see its three dimensions not only provides authority, but a veracity for all of a story’s audiences.

This may be where the liberal media stereotype arises: the writer is writing for their home audience, specifically their editor, rather than a broader audience. The point of view is not just that of the teller, but of the receiver. To achieve a better narrative, tell the story to a more intentional audience. Go beyond the audience you already know and strive to reach new target audiences. Maybe then, they will hear you.

Katharine Fraser is a writer, editor and content coordinator.

How-to Guide for Media Messaging

There really is no mystery in media training. For starters, it can be distilled into some simple do’s and don’ts. Before I give you the rundown, allow me to disclose I am a proponent of transparency. I don’t advocate for that as a former journalist wanting to help reporters get stories, but as firm believer that markets are more efficient when they operate on valid information.

If you opt to remain silent in today’s real-time marketplace, then fold your arms and watch rampant speculation fill the void. If you like market inefficiencies, then you’ll love the outcomes. Dark markets are the province of manipulators. If you would rather define your business yourself instead of having others paint an unflattering or inaccurate picture, then let’s carry on with how to position your messaging.

Don’t hide. It’s become fashionable to omit from press releases contact names and information for media representatives. Make it easy for reporters to call or email you. If you’re not ready to answer the phone, let them leave a message. Now you know what the word on the street is.

Don’t exclusively rely on social media. We all need and use social media on a constant basis. But, don’t let it supplant verbal and email communications. Yes, you can tweet updates in a crisis, but do include a link to a FAQ page that you can continually provide clear, elaborative details. Relying on tweet sound bites alone could create ambiguity. Allow for the possibility that there is a question you left unanswered and let people reach you directly for clarification.

Be direct. Leaving room for misinterpretation opens the door to misreporting, be it by journalists or anyone who tweets. They say it’s impossible to unring a bell — imagine trying to unring all those retweets.

Calibrate and re-calibrate your content, depending on your audience. Not all reporters are the same. Even in this day of listicles, many reporters, especially those working for trade publications, are substantive and warrant attention. Ask the reporter follow-up questions about their questions to gauge how much they already know. Know your audience and speak to it accordingly.

Be proactive. Have you ever had your congressman call you? I was thrilled to receive a telephone call from a live town hall meeting being held by my congressman. Being a policy nerd, I was delighted to hear his voice, letting constituents know what issues are on his radar and where he looks to act. Make yourself available to those who are open, available or targetable for your messaging. Promote such an event ahead of time with social media, or instead, post podcasts or videos. Also, don’t assume you should only reach demographics you know already agree with you. In the free marketplace of ideas, you’re missing opportunities to persuade if you don’t speak more broadly.

Provide education on your business. People outside your industry generally don’t know a thing about it, but may think they know it. Use a background piece to illustrate and explain your business. This approach gives you the opportunity to frame your products and services in context.

Granted, there will be times when you may not disclose information. Don’t be shy in saying that is the case, whether it is because of pending litigation (or threat of litigation), nondisclosure agreements, regulatory limits or you simply don’t have the information. You decide how much of the reason you want to cite. By all means, if deemed necessary, leave it at no comment. No comment at this time is fine.

Finally, establish relationships with people who are covering what you do. There may be a time when you want to readily reach those people and vice versa. Don’t be a stranger. Be a part of the discussion.

For more information on enhancing your business communications, contact consultant Katharine Fraser.

Adroit Narratives