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Something to think about... / blog
How Can We Trust a Journalist that Lies?

Written by on July 12, 2016

One of the things I constantly have to struggle with as a media analyst is the culture that exists in media companies to lie to their readers to make something more exciting than it really is.

Let me give you a simple example (there are far worse examples than this). A Danish news site (the Danish equivalent of the BBC) recently published an article about Tour de France with the title:

Chaos in the commentary box: Wild Englishmen smash table in the middle of the sprint.

It had a subheading that said this:

DR sport commentator had to 'jump for his life' and the BBC had to think quickly when disaster struck in the middle of the sprint of the fifth stage.

And in the article we could read:

There is usually lots of stress in the commentator boxes during the final sprints at Tour de France. But it was still more chaotic than usual during the 4th stage.

One of the BBC's commentators toppled their table, during their enthusiastic commentating on the final meters. Something DR sport commentator Henrik Fallesen experienced close-up as the English neighbor.

'The enthusiasm of the close sprint was so great with our colleagues at the BBC that their whole radio board overturned. So I had to jump for my life, and people had to help hold the table which was making a dangerous amount of mass spectacle,' said Henrik Fallesen on P3.

It sounds crazy, right? Wild people, chaos, tabled being toppled and smashed. What kind of hooligan is that?

But then they also embedded the video so that we could see it for ourselves, and what we find is that none of this happened. Instead, while the commentator was gently leaning on the table, it slid out of the groove it was resting on, causing it to slide down.

Nobody jumped for their lives. There was no danger at any point, or any damage caused to anything.

Here you can see it for yourself:

In other words, that whole article was a lie.

This is an absolutely terrible culture, because it erodes the trust that people have. More to the point, it devalues the connection people might have to the newspaper.

Think about it like social interaction. How would you feel if someone you follow on Twitter was revealed to have told a lie to you... on purpose? How would you feel if this was a common problem with that person? Would you continue to like him... or would you stop following him?

We already know the answer to that. In fact, we see every day how brands and internet personalities lose all their momentum when they are caught lying to their followers.

But for some weird reason, the media never seems to learn this lesson. I see this every single day, and not just by the tabloids but also in the large respectable newspapers.

This is a cultural problem, in that newspapers don't care about the reputation they have with their readers. In fact, this is not just about the reputation, it's also about thinking about their readers first.

It's a cultural problem when you as a journalist think that misleading your readers for clicks is something you can do.

It prevents change

The reason I'm so obsessed about this is because it obstructs your ability to change. As a media analyst, it's my role to help media companies understand the trends and create a better future. That's what I do with Baekdal Plus and when I'm hired by a client to review their future strategy.

But nothing I say makes any difference if the newspaper keeps lying to people. It doesn't matter if you have optimized for the new behaviors or change your editorial focus to make you more unique, if the content of the articles lies to your audience.

I don't care that it might create more clicks in the short term. It is destroying your future, and it completely prevents you from forming that vital connection that you need to compete with the digital natives.

Mind you, digital natives are sometimes caught lying to their audiences as well. The latest example is this one, where a YouTuber failed to disclose that his videos were rigged.

And I want you to look at the comments posted to his video where he finally 'admitted it'.

Granted, YouTube comments are often horrible because they are often based on people's unfiltered emotions. But the emotions are real. People were absolutely pissed.

So, if people react this way when they realize a YouTuber has lied to them, how do you think they react when a newspaper does the same?

Do you think they say, "Oh, this is alright, because that's journalism. They probably didn't mean it." Or do they say, "Fuck you newspaper!"

Mind you, some will say that a YouTuber scamming his audience into buying something that isn't true is far worse than a journalist exaggerating about a table. In some ways, you are right, but it also completely misses the point.

Trust is not defined by whether you are telling people a big or a small lie, nor is it defined by how often you do it. You don't trust a friend more if he is only telling you small lies.

As soon as something is exposed as a lie, you lose that trust regardless of the severity of it. That's how trust works.

Just stop doing it. Don't make excuses. Don't try to explain your way out of it. Just stop it.

If I were the owner of a newspaper, I would make this my number one rule. Never ever lie or intentionally mislead the audience.

What makes us worth reading (as opposed to all the other things people can find online) is that we are worthy of that trust. We must be the place people go when they can't trust the other channels. When people read about something that isn't true on Facebook, we (the newspapers) are where people should be able to turn to for real information.

And we must have laser focus on this goal because everyone, from politicians to industry leaders, is constantly trying to erode the trust people have in news.

We must not just prove that we can be trusted, we must make sure that every article is so well defined that everyone can see this for themselves.

But we lose it all every time a newspaper decides to write an exaggerated or misleading story to make it 'sound a bit more exciting'.

What DR should have done is to report this as a funny moment. Every fan of Tour De France loves to see what is happening behind the scenes as well. And in this case, what the video actually shows is a minor mishap with the table, but one that the journalist wasn't influenced by.

What we see here is the sheer dedication by the BBC staff. It's not wild Englishmen smashing tables in their excitement, causing others to jump for their lives. It's, "Look at this funny moment, and look at how they continued their work. That's amazing!"

There was no need to exaggerate this story and turn it into something that sounded negative. It was already great in a positive way.

This is the culture change that we need.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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