When the media becomes the topic

A spate of negative publicity has placed the media under its own spotlight, while outlets in search of some positive press may have fewer options to explore.

A spate of negative publicity has placed the media under its own spotlight, while outlets in search of some positive press may have fewer options to explore.

With all the headlines about Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, and the CBS news division, lately the hot topic in the media has been the media. "There are more streams of criticism, that's for sure," notes Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "And I think there's a greater tendency for other news organizations to cover what would be considered journalism malpractice." It's not just the plagiarism at The New York Times (with Jayson Blair) or USA Today (Jack Kelley) that's been dissected and scrutinized by other publications. Even the day-to-day news gathering process is now under the microscope. The Houston Chronicle, for instance, is taking heat for missing the story about Enron's bogus accounting numbers, as is the Times for its lack of skepticism in pre-Iraq War coverage. A lot of the increased debate over the media - on editorial pages, cable news outlets, and talk radio stations - is driven by a public better educated about the media's ability to shape outcomes of the events it covers.

Consumer confidence

"There's a widening consciousness of the growing influence of media, and people are wary of it and want to keep an eye on it," notes Mark Fitzgerald, Chicago-based editor-at-large for Editor & Publisher. "I think people are interested in the media to the extent that they're politically involved. One reason why there was so much attention paid to the media recently was because of the passions of the presidential election." Despite these trends, the actual number of reporters and media outlets dedicated to covering their fellow journalists may actually be in decline. "Media columns are kind of disappearing from newspapers," Fitzgerald notes. "The Chicago Tribune had one devoted to the media, and that's gone. The Financial Times' US edition had a page devoted to media, and that's been replaced, and USA Today used to cover the newspaper business quite thoroughly, and it really doesn't anymore." Gene Ely, veteran media reporter and current owner and editor of MediaLife magazine, notes that certain stories have wide-ranging interest. When Dan Rather reported on fake National Guard documents, the coverage of the scandal was not only politically charged, but retained momentum because it dealt with a high-profile news anchor. But other stories have more of a niche audience. "I'd say the highlight of the scrutiny of the media was Brill's Content," Ely says. "Brill made the mistake of believing a magazine devoted to the media would get a lot of readership outside the media. And a lot of people outside the media don't really care." Ely adds that the recent coverage may end up giving the public a distorted view of what is actually a fairly healthy industry. "You talk about this problem or that problem, but the media is far more clean than it ever was before and has a lot more integrity than it had before," he says.

An expert's eye

Most of these stories tend to focus on top-tier outlets either in the northeast corridor or the West Coast, which has led to the theory that coverage of the press may be by major-market media elites for media elites. "It's really the media that are fascinated with coverage of the media," says Bobbi Schlesinger, president of Freeman Public Relations, which represents magazines such as Arthur Frommer's Budget Traveler and the recently launched Grand, aimed at grandparents. "They're the ones reading about the editor hirings and firings, competition for circulation, and the general gossip of the industry." Schlesinger adds that it can be hard to get media writers to look at publishing companies beyond the confines of New York. "There is a bias that if it isn't Hearst or Conde Nast or Hachette, what is it?" she says. Schlesinger says the best strategy for editors at smaller magazines may be to pitch themselves as experts for TV, radio, or even newspaper lifestyle coverage. She notes that she was recently able to get the editor of Grand magazine on Today talking about the six biggest mistakes that grandparents make. "Throwing press releases to the wind is foolish," she says. "You have to use the editorial authority of the magazine to create the attention."

Pitching... stories about the media

  • Press releases that tout gains in a media outlet's audience or advertising revenue only appeal to an insider market. Pitch those results as part of a trend story noting the growth of an entire media category
  • Media stories can transcend the media page. If the media reporter is not interested in yours, there may be other editors and writers in the lifestyle or business sections who are willing to do a story on journalism
  • Look to position your client's editors and writers as authoritative experts in a category, then use them to raise the profile of the publication

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