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Harmful Media Exposure: Beware of the Hidden Sources of Damage

When it comes to the positive perception of someone or something, there is a saying that is at once ominous and very true: “It can take years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it.” There are an infinite variety of ways that a negative perception can be generated through various forms of harmful communications. One of the most common – and impactful and damaging – is through the mass media. It’s not supposed to be that way nor should it be.

Journalism is the act of gathering and presenting news and information and its mission is to inform the public. When I was a reporter for the New York Times, we took pride in its motto “all the news that’s fit to print.” Of course, that isn’t the most importaqnt responsibility of journalism. It is “fair and balanced” reporting. What that means is this. “Fair” means honest, truthful and unbiased while “balanced” means equality to both sides in terms of the information presented, when, how and where. Journalism must be based on objectivity, meaning journalists must make every effort to report the news and information without allowing their preconceptions to influence what they present.

The media takes many forms – print (e.g. newspapers, magazines, specialty publications) and broadcast (e.g. radio, television). In this internet age, the media can also be found online and provide another forum for disseminating information through the written word (e.g. articles, blogs, tweets) and verbally (e.g. videos, podcasts). Offline or online, the media is a powerful force in impacting perception or public opinion (despite the fact that polls show trust in the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly is at its lowest levels).

Countless lawsuits are filed each year against various forms of media by individuals, businesses, institutions and other entities for libel (written statement) or slander (verbal statement) which are negative communications that are considered defamatory and lead to a negative perception or damage to the recipient’s image, reputation, brand, etc. In some cases though, the media is protected if it comes in the form of an editorial, column, commentary, blog, etc. especially when the communication is clearly labeled as opinion (albeit false statements are still actionable).

Often the defamation by the media is there for all to see (e.g. blatantly false statements which are indefensible). However, there are innumerable other ways by which the media can intentionally tarnish its target of negatively impact the perception or opinion of it all under the guise of straight, objective reporting (e.g. deserved or not, think Donald Trump). In most cases, these ways are not detectable. If intentional, they also can be more damaging and effective than putting the information out in the open because those absorbing it are not conscious of what is happening. A few examples:

  • The amount of coverage provided on a story with a negative subject (e.g. size of article/report, how many on given day, how many days/weeks they continue, is it warranted, proportional, overkill or bordering on harassment)

  • The location of a story/report (e.g. front or back page, which section, placement on page or when in the news report)

  • Photos/video accompanying story/report (e.g. content of visuals, whose in them, what people are doing, faces look good or bad, are they deceptive to the thrust of story/report)

  • Whose assigned to write the article/air the report (e.g. some reporters associated with certain types of stories, example: investigative reporter sends signal something could be amiss)

  • Not allowing the subject, when information presented, opportunity to refute some or all of the negative information

  • Photos/videos can negative and hold a person up to ridicule even if unintentional by the media (e.g. show private body parts, show person doing something that would reflect on bad manners, habits, personal hygiene)

  • Use of unnamed sources providing negative information which impacted subject can’t challenge or confront.

In instances that involve a dispute or contrasting views in a story/report (e.g. two sides), there are numerous means through which the media can slant the coverage in favor of one side while damaging the other side, all the while appearing to by objective, including:

  • Providing more coverage to one side’s position than the others.

  • Placement of each side’s information (e.g. whose side is presented first and is the other’s equal in terms of attention)

  • Is the visual aspects (e.g. photos, videos) equal in time, position and content and provide equal impressions.

  • If outside people other than the two sides are interviewed or quoted, are those supporting each side equal in numbers, stature, extent of coverage, meaningfulness of what they are addressing.

  • If research/information/opinions/statistics from outside sources introduced, it is equal and balanced to both sides.

The “bottom line” is this. Normal types of media defamation (e.g. libel, slander) are generally easy to detect and easy to determine if it is legally actionable because it can be traced to the damage to the recipient’s image and reputation or the negative perception or opinion incurred as a result of it. It’s the “hidden” ways that the media can slant coverage to create a negative impression or cast the recipient in a negative light that bear watching in terms of whether the media may be accountable and subject to litigation.

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