Is it too soon for the media to begin assigning blame? PR practitioners invited to weigh in with a vote

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In its Daily ‘Dog section of the website, Bulldog Reporter (which bills itself as “The Leading Source of PR Views, News and Tools”) usually has a running “Pulse of PR” spot poll. Often time the results are interesting and relatively useful from a “trends” perspective. Given the glut of information (from many mediums) and opinion over the past week, the most recent one seems particularly timely.

Do you think it’s too soon for the media to begin assigning blame in the Virginia Tech tragedy?

(Spot-poll participants can select from the following answers)

– Not at all: A quicker response to the first shootings may have prevented further killings
– No: The school didn’t handle last summer’s shooting crisis or last week’s bomb threats very well
– Maybe: The media’s first concern should be to relay the basic facts of the massacre, not speculate
– Yes: The nation is still in mourning and now is not the time to assign those kinds of roles

If you wish to participate, visit the Daily ‘Dog home page and scroll down. At the time of posting, this poll was still located in the right-hand column. Although you can choose to View Results at any time, I’d recommend you vote first–go with your reflective response if you were counselling the media and authorities, faculty and administrative staff. Then see how closely your opinion matches up with other PR practitioners.

This particularly horrific carnage happened on an American post-secondary campus, but the use of firearms and violence against innocent victims (particularly students) certainly isn’t specific to one nation. (Tragically, Canada has had its own share of school-based shootings over the last 20 years.) I know the way I voted in this poll is probably somewhat reflective of the cultural values and norms I hold.

It did make me wonder if a similar poll was conducted by a non-American publisher, whether the wording and/or choices of answers would be different.

Update (4/21/07): From the Barks and Bites column, David Henderson on Tragedy Communications: Virginia Tech’s Use of New Media Tools Exemplary

(snip)
“Within just a few hours, the university had taken charge of its communications and was speaking with a clear and consistent voice. Even before the deeply sorrowful task of identifying the dead, those few early updates that the university had were immediately communicated to the information needs of students, faculty, parents, the Blacksburg community and the world. There was no speculation, just facts.”

Update (4/25/07): The above “Pulse of PR” spot poll has now been replaced with a new query, “Which of the following has been the biggest corporate PR story so far this year?”

8 COMMENTS

  1. Judy, I just voted (5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 20), and realized that my answer would have been different if I had voted two days ago, and it might be different again in a couple of days from now, as information continues to be released. Blame, like comedy = tragedy+time. And timing is not a science.

  2. I’ve never heard blame likened to comedy before, Tom–but I approve of the analogy!

    Good point about one’s fluid opinion on the topic, which is likely why the spot poll won’t remain online much longer.

    It does beg the question as to when it *is* early enough for the media to start to assign blame. That is, if ever. Perhaps the media shouldn’t be making those judgments (i.e., perhaps there are other quarters better suited to make those assessments). Particularly as the media is supposed to be objective and just report on the facts, from as many contextual sides and viewpoints as possible.

    Do you think the (podcast) interview you did with crisis communications expert, Gerard Braud (on lessons learned from the Virginia Tech massacre and the devastation to the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina) shaped your opinion when you voted on Friday?

  3. Good question, Judy. The interview refreshed my memory of feelings that I had at the time I heard about both crises (Virginia Tech and Katrina). I honestly can’t say how much those feelings and the facts presented by Gerard Braud affected my voting on Friday. I just know that when I debated how to vote, I knew that I was moving away from the edges (the furthest point from the middle) toward the center.

  4. Who / what is “the media” that assigns blame, either too early or too late or whenever?

    The Star? CNN. The Times of London?

    Where in each of these mediums? In a news story, as the opinion of the newspaper? Sorry, but it does not work that way in most mainstreal newspapers.

    The only time The Times actually says something, albeit in print, is on the editorial page. Are we talking about an editorial, on the editorial page, assigning blame?

    Other than that, The Times offers opinions of individuals, in their by-lined columns or when quoted in columns or news stories. In both cases, these are opinions of people, not “The Media.”

    CNN NEVER says anything. There’s no CNN match to the editortial page of any good newspaper. Individual reporters on CNN say things, but they really are pretty careful about offering opinions. That’s why the evolution of Anderson Cooper from reporter to “point-of-View” commentator was so interesting.

    People being interviewed say things. Sometimes they are “real” people who happen to be on the scene, sometimes “experts” like the psychritists hired to examine the brain of a dead man they’ve never met, and sometimes they are “regulars” like James Carville and Dvid Grange. None are “the media”.

    And there are those weird cross-bred entities Lou Dobbs and Jack Cafferty who offer opinion mixed with genuine reporting, but they sure are not “The Media.”

    If the Daily Dog wanted to ask an intelligent question, and I question its capability to do so, it might ask “When should a reporter ask an interview subject for an opinion? And if an opinion is offered in the midst of an answer to a question looking for a fact, should that opiion be edited out? If so, is there a time period after which editing out is not necessary?”

    I have no trouble understanding why the great unwashed don ‘t understand “The Media” is a false construct. They’re so ignornat they think The Star has an opinion about a movie when in truth it’s a reporter on The Star who has an opinion, even though the ad says “The Star.”

    BAK

  5. You make some valid points, Brian, however if your construct is true, why is it that some newspapers/media outlets have a reputation of being liberal (or left-leaning) and others as being conservative?

    (Partly answering my own question), some of it boils down to what stories the media outlet chooses to cover (plus the “subject experts” they source to interview), as well as the “tone” of the coverage. I maintain that the coverage and tone can convey approval or blame (although the more reputable organizations try hard not to do so). And journalists work for these outlets, full-time or on a contract basis. If they cover a story in a certain way (particularly after passing through the approval and editing function), in essence it becomes the viewpoint of the media entity.

  6. Any newspaper with a left leaning reputation is an individual medium, not “the media” and a left-leaning reputation is a long way from such specifics as “assigning blame” as per the context of this thread.

    BAK

  7. I wrote newspapers/media outlets for just that reason, Brian (thinking specifically of the *convergence* of various media in recent years in Canada; how some media outlets have a reputation on one side of the spectrum bias, others on the opposite side of the scale).

    And please note that in my original post (which was intended to point interested PR practitioners to the poll, rather than me opining on the timing and/or assignation of blame), I indicated:

    “Given the glut of information (from many mediums) and opinion over the past week, the most recent one seems particularly timely.”

    And, hey, thanks for adding to the PR Conversations.

  8. Judy and Brian, I agree with both of you.

    Brian, referring to the intent or actions of “the media” is as exact as referring to the intent or actions of “the doctors,” “the scientists,” or “the athletes.” Each group may share common skills and knowledge, but they also have a wide range of personal opinions and core beliefs.

    Judy, as you said, journalists (media) shouldn’t be making judgments, particularly as the media is supposed to be objective and just report on the facts, from as many contextual sides and viewpoints as possible.

    The fact is that individual media entities, for example, newspapers, historically have seemed to cast news in a left-leaning or right-leaning light. So the Bulldog Reporter might have been trying to gauge how PR professionals viewed the overall tone of reporting related to the Virginia Tech massacre–was it pointing fingers, and if so, at whom? If so, was it done in an appropriate way and at an appropriate time?

    The BR’s poll questions could have been better written.

    Tom

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