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Monday, July 11, 2011

A New World Pattern: Hacking Followed by Regulating

The scandal and shutdown of one of News Corp’s biggest media tabloid properties – News of the World – provides a bumper crop of crisis response lessons and warnings. So called “phone hacking” is at the center of this scandal in which reporters and editors illegally listened in on and sometimes deleted private voicemails from politicians, celebrities and others. British Prime Minister Cameron is under fire for his close ties to the tabloid and his hiring of former editors as communication advisors.


Here are some of our lessons learned and potential warnings:


Lesson: If you are involved in any way in a public scandal, get out in front of it, apologize, clarify truthfully, and propose a solution, or at least an assessment or investigation. Prime Minister Cameron has – at least so far – learned this lesson and is speaking out properly as the story is breaking. “The truth is we have all been in this together," Mr. Cameron said. "Yes, including me." How many politicians hedge, delay or even deceive before they finally clear the air? They haven’t learned the lesson. Coming clean quickly gives a politician the best chance -- any chance -- to survive the fallout.


Warning: Regulating a culture shift is difficult or impossible. Since the scandal broke, there have been many calls – primarily from Cameron himself – to look into changing the admittedly biased and incestuous relationship the media has with influencers like politicians and celebrities through regulation. But, will that work? Britain’s political leadership should be forewarned that simply creating new laws to restrain the media won’t change the culture. Find another solution. Change the readers’ appetite for sensationalism, for one.


Lesson: Illegal reporting practices are only half the problem. The other half is an emerging online media that eschews fact-checking for real-time, unverified, subjective, titillating news. While we’re prosecuting the criminals, we also have to learn ways to develop and support credible, researched and fact-checked journalism.


Warning: The slippery-slope red flag is raised whenever a publication gets shunned and, in this case, shut-down. It is easy to assume the worst about all media and their editors, writers, producers and reporters. It seems to many that the line between credible journalism and “yellow” or tabloid news is blurring. Our warning is to avoid painting all those in media with one broad and negative brush. There is still ethical and diligent reporting going on. You just have to find it.

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