Do Media Archetypes Predetermine Whether Your Company Is Portrayed As Good or Evil?

(First in a two-part series on media archetypes).

It’s amazing, really, how news media can research and report a steady stream of stories, quickly and, for the most part, accurately in a continuously flowing tableau recording our society’s memorable moments. ("Accurately" meaning that each individual fact in a story is arguably correct but not necessarily meaning that the piece in total is fair, balanced and representative of a complex reality.)

Journalists and their editors synthesize enormous amounts of information, continuously making choices about what it is relevant and what is not, what can be presented as fact and what is merely opinion requiring a quote from another source to represent an alternative point of view for balance. A piece of breaking news is supplemented by additional information for context and historical perspective. Visuals are sought out to help tell the story and add emotional impact. All these pieces are packaged in neat, tidy parcels for easy consumption by the news media’s readers, listeners or viewers.

Understanding the way news is packaged is critical to successful corporate news management. Simply put, the arbiters of what is reported in each package make important decisions long before all the reporting is done, decisions that can determine whether your company or product is good or bad, whether you are on the "right side" of the issue or in the wrong.

In morning news budget meetings at newspapers and television stations and networks each day, editors sit around a table and quickly choose winners among various potential stories that their teams of reporters are working on. Resources are scarce; so is air time. Stories that have drama, action and some element of sexiness or intrigue win out over the straight but dry news that makes up most our lives and our companies’ and our countries’ daily doings.

The way these news-budget decisions are made often comes down to two factors that public relations practitioners must understand:

  • "If it bleeds, it leads." Or more accurately, "If we have good tape of it bleeding, it leads." In the broadest sense, this means that strong visuals can propel an otherwise uninteresting story to the front page or the lead of the newscast. Local television news is especially swayed by this consideration — which is why house or building fires are such a staple of local news. The story you’re pitching can’t compete with a three-alarm blaze, but you can make sure you have strong visuals — stills as well as b-roll — that add interest to your story. Remember, visuals can add emotional weight to a story — whether they come from you or from an adversary group attacking your company or product.
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  • News budgeting means binning stories into established archetypes. There is going to be a good guy and a bad guy, a white hat and a black hat. We don’t have time for gray. Again, this is a trait of television news, for sure, but in-depth print stories reflect it as well. And remember, the arbiters of the news budget often are deciding how the elements of the story match their predetermined archetypes before the reporter has even talked to your company because they’re afraid of losing their scoop to the competition. So you may be wearing the black hat before you even open your mouth and type on your keypad.

Roy Peter Clark has a fascinating piece on Poynter Online today on how stories are played to archetypes. He begins by recounting how a student reporter writing for a high school newspaper had covered a wheelchair bowling tournament and written an up-lifting piece about the experience. Later, Clark spoke to the young woman who said that the handicapped bowlers had been "cranky, dismissive, angry, horny (and) obnoxious."  Why hadn’t she written this, he asked her. "I wanted to write a good story," she told him, "about people over-coming obstacles."

She wrote to an archetype, ignoring the less-than-inspiring reality because it didn’t fit.

Too often business reporters write to archetypes, often at the direction of an editor or managing editor. The "David and Goliath" archetype, for example, is pervasive in stories where a "little guy" (an average-Joe consumer, an ex-employee whistle-blower, or perhaps a crusading lawyer) is pitted against an unfeeling, inhumane, rich monolith (the big corporation you happen to represent). The archetype says that the little guy is the sympathetic character. There is no need to check for a profit motive behind his accusations or an unspoken axe he may be grinding. He’s the "little guy" and the investigative journalist is looking out for him.

Meanwhile, the only obligation toward the evil-empire that is playing Goliath in this archetype is to provide minimal airtime or space in the column for a perfunctory denial. News media is the self-proclaimed "fourth estate," the watchdog over various centers of power, whether Big Government or Big Corporation.

CBS’ long-running and popular gotcha-mentary "60 Minutes" is built on this formula and has spawned countless copycats from Geraldo to your local investigative TV "on-your-side" guy. But the original is still the best example of the archetype. Almost like clockwork, at least one segment on "60 Minutes" each week will be structured to the "David and Goliath" script. In a 10- or 12-minute package, a neat and tidy melodrama will play out with the bad actor being exposed as guilty with no room for doubt, no shades of nuance. It’s all very reassuring theater but it often leaves out messy facts and perspectives that don’t fit the script.

In my next post, I’ll explore other media archetypes and ways to tell your organization’s story against an unfavorable archetype.

- Jon Harmon 

Comments

  1. I’ve just been marking some post-graduate PR student assignments addressing criticism of PR as involving rhetoric that packages corporate information as favourable narratives.
    Your post is a useful reminder that this is exactly what journalists are doing. Which makes it even more difficult for the public to assess objectively what they encounter via the media.
    Critics of PR suggest that the public need to be more aware of how the profession is influencing the news and packaging stories. One could argue the public should be educated further on how the media operates in this regard.
    Would this lead to greater ability to assess “truth” and make informed decisions – or just increase the cynicism many feel about all public communications?

  2. Tara Burnham says:

    I would agree with you Heather that the public often forgets that the news media has their own slant when reporting news to fit these archetypes that Jon discusses.
    However, the fact that people don’t trust news media as much as they did years ago suggests that maybe the public does know this.
    While I am obviously a believer in the positives of social media, I do worry that the in the future, the public will make less informed decisions in their lives because they read so many like-minded discussions online.
    Jon, do you think that newspapers will stop utilizing archetypes in the future when reporting? I am curious to see if they will abandon this model in order to gain back some of the public’s trust.

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