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Book Excerpt: Reporters Cast Characters
How to handle the media when the headline is you.
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 by Jeff Ansell
Jeff Ansell & Associates

Ask most journalists how they see news and their response will likely be about the pursuit of truth. To pursue truth is indeed a noble path. To get to their truth, journalists, news producers, and editors cast characters and build stories around them—stories that involve controversy, conflict, and emotion. 

The problem, of course, is in the ambiguity of interpreting truth itself. As revealed in Brinkley’s quote about news being what he says it is, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But who gets to decide which player is the terrorist and which is the freedom fighter?

Reporters, along with editors and producers, decide who plays the hero or villain in a story. Like Steven Spielberg, they hand out roles for tonight’s evening news and tomorrow morning’s newspaper. Starring roles are reserved for the protagonist and the antagonist, the hero and the villain. Supporting roles are available for the victim, witness, survivor, expert, and goat, or as I like to call that character, the village idiot. Usually, it is the village idiot who caused the problem in the first place. On occasion, the village idiot also stars as the villain.

A front page headline in the July 28th, 2005 edition of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper read, “A landlord, an eviction, and a dying man’s last wish.” The story was about a twenty-nine year old terminal cancer patient being evicted because he owed his landlord sixteen hundred dollars. Asked whether she had sympathy for the sick tenant, the landlord snapped, “What am I, his mother? Why do I have to support him?” At first blush, the roles are clear. The terminal patient is cast as both the good guy and the victim, while the landlord is cast as the villain. But how do we know that was indeed the case? It’s possible that the patient was a tenant from hell and that the landlord had carried him for as long as she possibly could.

In truth, personal bias determines who gets cast in what roles. Journalists are not comfortable discussing personal bias. The role of the journalist, they believe, is simply to report the truth. Never having given it much thought during my reporting days, I suppose that my personal biases led me to become an investigative reporter. My biases were triggered by resentment I felt as a youngster over how my father was callously laid off by uncaring factory owners. Becoming a journalist allowed me to meet, challenge, and hold accountable people I perceived (rightly or wrongly) as high and mighty. To me, working class characters were heroes, while politicians, employers, and landlords were among those cast as the villain.

On occasion, the media creates heroes only to turn them into goats. In seeking the GOP nomination in 2008, Senator John McCain’s campaign was given up for dead, when suddenly it was resurrected and McCain became a darling of the media. Then, as he was about to secure the Republican nomination, a New York Times story by Elizabeth Bumiller suggested McCain had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist thirty years his junior. There was no proof of impropriety offered in the story, only nameless sources serving up gossip and innuendo. Though no fan of McCain, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said, “If you let the media make you, you are subjecting yourself to the media being able to destroy you.” Is it any wonder people are gun shy of reporters?

Jeff Ansell is the author of When the Headline is You, and a media and crisis communications consultant helping Fortune 500 companies to manage high-profile issues, including the Erin Brockovich case. He is founder and principal of the consulting firm Jeff Ansell & Associates.

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