Posted: September 6, 2006
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Article SummaryThis short column discusses seven principles for understanding and coping with the media’s entirely appropriate inclination to focus on the most newsworthy things you say – an inclination often labeled sensationalism. Of particular importance is the problem this raises for outrage management. The very same meeting at which you hope to say responsive, apologetic things in order to help reduce the outrage of angry stakeholders will also be attended by journalists, who will naturally convey your revealing admissions to readers and viewers who might otherwise never know. Managing a controversy well, in other words, is in some ways antithetical to managing the news clips well. You have to decide which task is more important. The column recommends managing the controversy.

Media Sensationalism and Risk:
Talking to Stakeholders
with Reporters in the Room

This is the tenth in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this web site. This one can be found (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the August 2006 issue of The Synergist, pp. 49–53.

The issue comes up at every risk communication seminar. Usually I’m talking about something like acknowledging errors, or giving credit to critics for the changes they demanded, or avoiding over-reassurance by paying attention to worst case scenarios, when someone objects: “That’s okay, maybe, alone in a room with a handful of stakeholders, with time to explain what you mean. But what if a reporter is covering the meeting? The point is bound to get taken out of context and sensationalized. And the headline could get me fired!”

I don’t have a magic solution to this problem. It is certainly easier to talk with stakeholders about risk without any reporters in the room. You can let your hair down more. You can acknowledge and apologize for things the stakeholders already know anyhow, without cluing in millions of outsiders in the process. You can make startling statements (“You asked me if X is safe. The answer is no, it isn’t.”) and then explain further (“What I mean by that is.…”).

The goal of this column is to put the reporters-in-the-room problem into perspective. Media sensationalism is a real problem. But it’s not as serious a problem as you might believe. Fundamentally, it’s just not a good enough reason for mishandling your risk communication with stakeholders.

1. The media cover what’s most interesting.

Back in the 1960s I was a newspaper reporter for a while. I remember covering a boring speech by a university president. The only newsworthy thing he said was a passing mention that the university, all-male at the time, was starting to think about going coed. Naturally, that was my lead. When the story was published, the president complained that I had misrepresented the main thrust of his speech. I answered that it wasn’t my job to summarize the speech, but rather to cover anything in it of potential interest to my readers.

So, yes, the most newsworthy aspects of what you say are bound to get emphasized in the media. That’s not distortion. That’s news judgment.

2. The media are more interested in outrage than in hazard.

How upset people are about a risk (“outrage,” in my terminology) is intrinsically more interesting than how dangerous that risk is to health or safety (“hazard”). Industrial hygienists don’t think so – but they’re industrial hygienists. The rest of us pay more attention to trust, responsiveness, control, dread, and the like than we do to mortality and morbidity statistics. Since we do, so do reporters. The media don’t manufacture outrage, but like vultures they do prey on it – and in the process they certainly amplify it.

Among the corollaries of this principle, four are especially important in understanding how journalists see risk.

  • The quantity of media coverage is proportional to the size of the outrage, not the size of the hazard. Upsetting risks are newsworthy whether they’re serious or not. Boring risks aren’t newsworthy, again whether they’re serious or not.
  • The content of the coverage focuses more on outrage than on hazard. Who’s angry? Who’s frightened? Who’s at fault? Who withheld or misstated key information? These questions are high-quality grist for the media mill. Statistical estimates of risk magnitude and probability? Who cares?
  • The alarming, high-outrage side of the risk story is more newsworthy than the reassuring, low-outrage side. It’s a story because somebody says it’s bad. Somebody else who says it’s not so bad isn’t the basis for the story – just the other side, offered for balance.
  • These rules apply regardless of the truth. Journalists are the ultimate post-modernists. Most of them don’t believe in figuring out which side is right – only in quoting both sides accurately. On a 9-point scale where “1” means perfectly safe and “9” means incredibly dangerous, “7” gets more attention than “3.” Even “3” gets more than “5” (too boring) or “1” or “9” (too extreme). The actual hazard has relatively little impact on this consistent allocation of coverage.

3. The media do often sensationalize routine stories – but that’s not a good enough reason to downplay the risk.

Focusing more on outrage than on hazard and more on “7” than on “3” means the media inevitably overplay technically small risks that have aroused large controversies.

At a recent seminar, a county government official was discussing how alarming or reassuring to be when talking about risk. “The media will sensationalize whatever we tell them,” he said. “So we play it down, and reporters play it up – and it comes out about right.” For years clients have been offering me this rationale for understating risk: If the media are going to multiply what you say by ten, why not tell them one-tenth of the truth?

This is a self-fulfilling prophesy, of course. Journalists justify sensationalizing what they’re told on the grounds that they get only the tip of the iceberg anyway. And it’s certainly not a long-term strategy for building and sustaining credibility. On balance, you’re better off taking even small risks seriously, especially when you’re talking to outraged stakeholders … even when there are reporters in the room. Understating small risks because reporters are bound to exaggerate what you say is itself a high-risk strategy. The mere fact that sources are playing down the risk makes the story a lot more newsworthy – and makes the risk a lot scarier.

4. The media don’t usually sensationalize serious risks.

Moreover, media sensationalism is confined mostly to routine stories, the ones that need some sensationalizing to get editors and audiences interested. In a real crisis the media, in lockstep with their principal sources, tend to downplay the seriousness of the situation. (My wife and colleague Jody Lanard has dubbed this “Media Stockholm Syndrome.”) Like any high-outrage story, a serious crisis gets lots of coverage – but when the hazard is also high, the coverage tends to be sober and reassuring, not sensational.

With sources and journalists both over-reassuring, the public quickly smells a rat and becomes (paradoxically) all the more alarmed. From Three Mile Island to bird flu, this has been the crisis communication pattern: The authorities insist everything is under control; the mainstream media parrot these reassurances faithfully; and the audience feels left alone with its fears, which are thereby magnified and made harder to bear.

If anything, the media are more deeply committed than their sources to reassuring the public about risks that are genuinely serious and already pretty upsetting (high-hazard, high-outrage). On pandemic influenza, for example, some officials in some countries have been candid that the worst case scenario is horrific and the world is unprepared. Virtually every time I’ve been able to examine the transcript of a this-is-serious media briefing and compare it to the coverage that resulted, the coverage was milder than the transcript. Reporters left the most dramatic official statements unused, choosing less upsetting sound bites instead.

As for high-hazard, low-outrage risks – smoking, driving without a seatbelt, obesity, and the like – media coverage tends to be scanty and dutiful. These are the stories that are simultaneously too serious to sensationalize and too boring to cover straight. They’re the black hole of risk reporting.

There are certainly times when the media sensationalize serious risks, especially in “docudramas.” But in news, sensationalism is most common in stories with no serious implications for public health. “Flesh-eating disease” gets sensationalized; terrorism usually doesn’t.

5. You’ll think you were sensationalized when you weren’t.

Research on selective perception consistently shows that people who are involved in an event see the coverage differently than everybody else. Ordinary people interpret media content through the filter of their own biases. Casual supporters of X focus on the pro-X information, while casual opponents see mostly the content that’s anti-X. Both are looking for evidence that they’re right. But more deeply committed participants tend to scrutinize the news for evidence that the media are mistreating their side. If a news story is pretty balanced, pro-X activists will usually judge it to be anti-X, while anti-X activists will consider it pro-X. So if you’re talking about a risk you think isn’t that big a deal, you’ll more than likely end up believing the media sensationalized what you said.

You won’t think that when you’re trying to gin up some appropriate concern about smoking, seatbelts, or obesity. But when you’re addressing a risk that’s serious and scary, and struggling against your own temptation to over-reassure, you may well think the media are sensationalizing when they’re not. Talking alarmingly (that is, candidly) about legitimately frightening risks goes against the grain for most corporate and government sources. When you hear your own statements on television or read them in the newspaper, they’re likely to strike you as unduly alarming. It’s tempting to project this natural post-hoc squeamishness onto the media and cry “Sensationalism!”

Reporters are accustomed to sources who claim “that’s not what I said”; when a tape is produced, they retreat to “that’s not what I meant.” Of course sometimes reporters simply get it wrong. But quite often exactly what the source said (and meant) seems a lot more alarmist when the source sees it on the TV screen or the front page. This is especially likely if the reporter has clarified and simplified a roundabout, muddled statement. It sounds a lot scarier when it’s easy to understand.

For similar reasons, sources who are trying to rouse public alarm about pandemic influenza tend to be exquisitely sensitive to any source who says something slightly more alarming than what they themselves are willing to say. This has led to a number of private and a few public battles in which one official or expert accused another of being excessively alarmist – of pandering to media sensationalism. Those who go out on the alarmist limb usually feel anxious about doing so – fearing that they themselves will trigger public over-reaction, or be accused of triggering it, or turn out wrong about the risk itself. So we look for people who are “worse” than we are and disavow them, as if they were not our slightly larger shadows. People on the reassuring side rarely worry much about those who are just a little more reassuring than they are. But people on the alarming side are hyper-vigilant about others on the alarming side.

6. There are ways to minimize out-of-context “sensationalist” quotations.

Reporters are very seldom out to get you; they’re out to get the story. They even want to get it right. But their desire to make the story as interesting as possible (unless it’s really serious) does lead them to emphasize some angles and underplay others. This bias against boredom can certainly unbalance the story; without the boring qualifiers, the story can be misleading in ways to which the reporter tends to be insensitive … and to which you tend to be hypersensitive.

So how can you help the reporter be a bit more tolerant of the boring bits that you see as essential context? A few suggestions:

  • Clue the reporter in more explicitly. “I have a two-part answer to your question. Both parts are key. One without the other would be misleading.”
  • Embed the “two-partness” of your answer in the rest of the answer too, making it harder for reporters (especially broadcast reporters) to use only the fun half. “On the one hand, it is true that…. But it’s just as important to remember that….”
  • Talk explicitly, on the record, about the coverage problem. “Sometimes reporters cover X without mentioning Y – which isn’t just unfair to our company; it’s unfair to your readers too.”
  • Warn the reporter that you are taping the whole interview, and plan to put it on your website along with whatever is published or broadcast. Accountability to you helps reporters do a more careful job in the same way accountability to them helps you do a more careful job. (And they won’t like it any better than you do.)

7. Stakeholder relations usually matter more than media relations.

There are real conflicts between what’s best to say to a small group of deeply involved stakeholders in a dialogue that may last for hours and what’s best to say to a potentially sensationalist reporter who’s going to pick one or two eight-second sound bites to broadcast to a barely interested media audience of millions. I’ve tried to argue that the conflicts aren’t as bad as you may think, and I’ve tried to suggest ways to ameliorate them. But conflicts remain.

So which audience matters more – the millions of bystanders or the handful of passionate stakeholders? More often than not, I think, it’s the handful of passionate stakeholders.

That’s probably not true if you’re a politician seeking reelection, or if you manufacture a consumer product and your brand is endangered. But in most risk controversies, trying to influence the casual opinions of the barely interested general public should be a lower-priority goal than trying to make peace with your most dedicated critics.

In the long run, moreover, media relations will follow stakeholder relations. Suppose there are 200 angry stakeholders and a few reporters at that first public meeting. Rather than feeding the reporters “your side” and inevitably angering the stakeholders that much more, you decide to acknowledge your problems and failings – taking the media hit for the sake of good outrage management. If you genuinely make amends with most of your angry stakeholders, maybe only 20 people will show up for the second meeting. That means the story moves off the front page. It probably means no reporters at the third meeting.

Of course your boss won’t be happy when he or she sees the coverage of that first meeting. If your management uses news clips to judge how well you’re handling a controversy, it’s awfully tempting to manage the clips instead. But in the long run, you’re better off managing the controversy.

Copyright © 2006 by Peter M. Sandman

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