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Adventures with the Media

Joseph E. Ryan
By Joseph E. Ryan
Public Information Director
City of Bayonne

During eleven years of handling press and public relations for the City of Bayonne, I have had many experiences dealing with newspaper and television reporters. To be fair, the majority of journalists are interested in reporting the facts the majority of the time. Unfortunately, in a significant minority of cases, journalists have had other agendas.

Early in my tenure, in 1996, I sent a routine announcement to The Jersey Journal about street construction on one of the main avenues in Bayonne. I gave the release a bland headline. If memory serves, it was “Avenue E Traffic Advisory.” When the item appeared in the newspaper, it had a new headline: “City to Hassle Residents.” Eleven years later, that still wins my prize for most gratuitously negative headline.

As a writer myself, I understand the need to make stories exciting through the use of interesting headlines. That being said, some stories are simply routine and deserve blandly accurate headlines. For example, “Free Wood Chips Available,” a headline I have actually used, stated clearly and plainly what the article was about, as did the equally exciting sequel, “More Free Wood Chips.” For the most part, articles about policy deserve unexciting headlines. Several years ago, The New Republic held a contest to find the world’s most boring headline. The winner was “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”

Over the years, I have found that many negative headlines and stories result from journalists’ ignorance of how government works. Most journalists are English or Journalism majors in college, and come into their jobs with little or no knowledge of local government. They need to learn on the job.

Education, First and Foremost
It is our responsibility as local officials to explain municipal terms and processes, so that the reporters understand what they are reading and seeing in municipal government. This is a pretty constant task, because there is a lot of turnover in local journalism. Reporters get assigned to new beats after a few months, or they get promoted, or they leave journalism for jobs with public relations firms. For their part, the journalists should learn everything that they can, so that they are reporting from knowledge and not from ignorance, for however long they are covering us.

Unfortunately, willful ignorance has often prevailed, more so among headline writers than among the reporters. A perfect example is the local news story that always follows our annual introduction of the proposed municipal budget. As municipal officials are aware, the version of the budget that is introduced at the beginning of the fiscal year is not the same as the version that passes sometime later. In theory, journalists are aware of this fact, too.

Taxes To Rise
Budgets are always amended before they pass. For example, elected officials who want to be re-elected have a vested interest in adding state and federal aid into the budget, in order to keep property taxes down. Typically, the other levels of government announce this aid after municipal budget introduction.

Journalist interviewing
The majority of journalists are interested in reporting the facts the majority of the time. Unfortunately, in a significant minority of cases, journalists have had other agendas.

Unfortunately, newspapers often seize upon the original budget-as-introduced, and present it to the public as a final document, particularly in regard to taxes. There is always the “Taxes To Rise” headline immediately after budget introduction, followed by the predictably negative response from the public. This headline is always unfair, because taxes may not rise at all by the time the budget is actually adopted. Many readers scan headlines, including inaccurate ones, and skip the details in the news stories, which sometimes clarify or even contradict the headlines.

My theory is that headline writers enjoy riling up the public with inaccurate or premature stories about taxes. They have a belief that controversy and negative headlines sell newspapers, and they write according to that belief.

What’s News
Although the media are guaranteed to do stories about most sensational events, they do not always do so. For example, at the beginning of the current war in Iraq, the Navy Seals trained in Bayonne, and sometimes caused explosive noises while doing so. City officials were sworn to secrecy until the occasionally loud training was over. For national security reasons, I had to deflect questions from neighbors about the unexplained noises until the federal government allowed us to go public about the training. Then I did a press release to announce the news.

A daily newspaper journalist sniffed, “That’s not news,” and his paper refused to run the story. By contrast, a weekly newspaper agreed it was news, and printed the story, but on its dining and entertainment page! If I had been an editor, the story would have run on page one with a headline like “Secret Anti-Terror Training Revealed” or “Mysterious Noises Explained.” Until I saw the weekly paper, I would never have guessed that anti-terrorist training was considered either dining or entertainment. To this day, I am not sure which one of the two they thought it was. This case was a clear reminder that freedom of the press includes both the freedom not to publish and the freedom to print stories in strange parts of the newspaper.

Public Perception
In a democracy, both journalists and public officials operate in a context determined by the public’s beliefs and knowledge (or lack thereof). In my experience, the public has very strong views on a lot of issues, but most people lack a detailed understanding of government. They are simply too busy with their jobs and families to learn most details.

People who do not follow politics closely often view all levels of government as being part of the same lump. This can be frustrating for local officials, who often get blamed for federal and state problems. For example, one day a constituent dismissed my explanation about a local utility issue, because, he said, he did not believe what the Pentagon was saying about Gulf War Syndrome. What he perceived as the U.S. Defense Department’s lack of credibility on a national issue poisoned my statements about a totally unrelated matter.

Different age groups sometimes have different perceptions about the credibility of various media. Older people grew up in an era of multiple metropolitan newspapers, and many of them are inclined to believe what they read in newspapers, if they believe anything. There is always a part of the older population that believes “they couldn’t have put it in the newspaper if it wasn’t true.” For younger people, the equivalent problem is, “I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true.”

Our Response
There are several ways in which municipal officials can try to overcome the difficulties that I have cited in this story:

1.     If you see something wrong and outrageous, and you want to respond, do so quickly. Call the reporter or the editor responsible within 24 hours. Explain to him or her why the headline or story was wrong. Ask for a correction and/or demand a rapid right of reply in the paper, on the web, or on the next broadcast, depending on the medium in which the problem appeared.

2.     Use your own local governmental media to give your story straight to the public. Post your press releases on your municipal website and/or government access cable TV station. If your website can e-mail your statements directly to subscribers free of charge, do it. In that way, your message is out there to counter negative bloggers. If you don’t have electronic media available, get them.

3.     The technical terms in local government can be confusing to both reporters and the public. Explain terms and procedures frequently in your press releases and statements. Do not assume that everybody understands what anything means unless you explain it to them. Recognize that people think you are confusing them deliberately or are lying to them when you tell the truth with overly technical language.

4.     When you consider your media strategy, recognize that older people are more likely to read newspapers, and that younger people are more likely to get their information from the Internet and other electronic media. If you do not use both print and electronic media to get your message out, you will be missing key parts of your public.

Dealing with the media is a constant responsibility. The bad news is that there will always be negative headlines to overcome. The good news is that each day brings another news cycle and a chance for a new beginning.







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