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Fundamentals of Media Mastery II — What is News?

BY IN BLOG On 25-03-2009

(Second in  series of postings that will give newcomers to the challenge of media mastery the basics and give alumni of our media training sessions a quick refresher)

When Dr. Steven Chu is the Nobel prize-winning physicist who headed the U.S. Department of Energy was asked what he liked least about his new job.  His answer:  “The fact that I’m constantly being told that I have to be careful what I say to the press and in public.  I can’t speculate out loud anymore.  Everything I say is taken with total seriousness.”

The glare of media attention CAN be daunting in this day and age.  We live in an era of “gotcha” journalism, when herds of reporters swarm all over hot stories like crows on road kill.  Still, a sophisticated and focused interview subject can make those crows fly in formation.

An earlier post gave my most basic rules for media mastery: the five commandments of interviews.  The first commandment is Thou Shalt Be Prepared.  A key element in preparation is understanding the current media scene.

In 2002, my first book on the subject, “How To Make the Most of Every Media Encounter,” did not contain a definition of news. Instead I relied on the general perception of what news was; in other words, the dictionary definition.  By 2007, when I wrote my second book on the subject, “How to Master the Media,” news had evolved so much I decided the dictionary definition wasn’t sufficient, I had to add a practical definition of the word.  Here is what I came up with:   

The Dictionary Definition: news [nooz, nyooz] a report of recent event; intelligence; information.

Today’s Practical Definition:  news [nooz, nyooz] a report that captures and holds an audience’s attention.

 Today’s media environment is like Niagara Falls: unending, relentless, LOUD!  News — or what passes for it — comes to us from radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, online and on our smart phones and tablets.  It is inescapable.  While producing a television documentary recently, a colleague went to one of the most remote places on earth: Surtsey — a barren island that is the planet’s newest land mass. Surtsey, formed by an underwater volcano off the coast of Iceland in 1963, is just an uninhabited rock in the ocean, a 40-minute helicopter ride from the nearest human habitat.  Yet, my colleague’s Blackberry functioned there and he could access the world’s news. More recently, in the ancient Inca city atop Machu Picchu in Peru, our guide stopped amid the ruins to make a call on his cell phone. Had he wanted to he could have checked the Dow Jones Industrial Average, read the Associated Press headlines or scrolled through the opinion pages of his favorite newspaper.

Because of the information cascade, today’s media must compete for our attention and so they are driven by five “F” words — all of them acceptable to the FCC for broadcasting.  They are: Fear, Fury, Fame, Fun and Fascination.

Fear — The media love stories that scare you.  If you’re frightened, they’ve got your attention.  When I moved to Los Angeles from New York 30 years ago, the local broadcast media were hysterically reporting on the implacable advance of Africanized killer bee swarms from Mexico.  Here it is three decades later and the bees still haven’t arrived, but now they’ve been replaced by fear-mongering coverage of mosquitoes bearing West Nile Virus. Every recent summer our local media — particularly the broadcasters — have beaten that drum, despite the fact that local authorities have done an outstanding job of eradicating the bugs.

Fury — The media are biased.  They are biased in favor of a good, furious argument.   If the argument is based on something emotional — especially something scary — all the better because that combines fear and fury.  One of my big challenges as a media trainer is equipping clients to respond when they are on the defensive against highly-emotional arguments in major controversies.

Fame — The media love stories about the famous or those they can make famous.  If I were to be stopped by the police for driving with an unsecured infant in my lap, it would not be a story.  Britney Spears does it and it’s news.  Similarly, if the checkout clerk at your local supermarket went off to kidnap her romantic rival, it would not be much of a story.  But if the would-be kidnapper is an astronaut, that’s a different story because the media can make her famous.

Fun —  In this era of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, he media are drawn to funny stories and stories they can have fun with.  Hence, if the would-be astronaut/kidnapper is wearing an adult diaper so she won’t have to make pit stops on her way to meet her rival, it’s all the more compelling a news story.

Fascination — Thankfully, the media still respond to “gee whiz,” “I didn’t know that” sorts of stories. I include in the fascination category “news you can use” stories: How to save money, how to improve your health, how to look younger, act wiser, raise brilliant children, etc.


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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.

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