I woke up on Wednesday November 27 and gazed at the winter view from a rear window in our home. Snow was glistening on the trees and grass. The street in front of our Buffalo home was plowed down to the bare pavement. Traffic was moving smoothly. And while I spent 5 minutes shoveling a path for our Norwich Terrier, this was hardly a snowfall to remember. Not by Buffalo standards. The problem is that one national news organization claimed this storm battered Buffalo and brought the City to its knees. Really? The story was even more incredible because that news organization had a live crew here for what they called the “crippling storm.” The video the crew captured did not support the alleged weather phenomenon.
For Buffalo area residents this news organization lost its credibility. The problem was magnified by the number of social media comments. Viewers from all over the country read tweets and posts about how a major news organization was simply wrong. For those who were disinclined to believe a national news organization anyway, this just solidified their beliefs. Trust in national news has been declining for years and social media is speeding up the erosion. Before Twitter, Facebook and others a media mistake made in one city had more limited ramifications. If a national network got a story wrong in Buffalo or Miami that network only had to deal with its reputation in that particular city. Now it takes a major nationwide hit.
CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel all lost viewers from November 2012 to November 2013. Much of the loss can be explained by the fact that 2013 is not an election year and the news events a year ago were more compelling. But if interest in news is cyclical, trust is not. If you lose a viewer’s trust, you may lose that viewer for a very long time. And the dangers in local news are just as great. Before social media I remember sitting in focus groups in Los Angeles. Many participants had complaints about how one local station or another got a story wrong. At least two people in every group were at the scene of a news story and disagreed with what a station reported later that day. Those “eyewitnesses” said they watched less or switched channels. Today, I suspect, they tweet their friends and try to convince them to watch less or switch, too.
The most valuable thing viewers give you is their trust. Make sure you have systems in place to guard against losing it. In the case of the “snow storm that wasn’t” just looking at the video should have raised a lot of questions.