Scanning the media

A. R. Samson-125


NOT TOO LONG AGO, when traditional media still ruled (before the term “printosaurus” was coined), there was a service available to companies, celebrities, and politicians that tracked any mention of them, good or bad. Every morning, the “clippers” would scan the print media and literally cut out news items mentioning their “client.”

The objective of the exercise was to address controversies and get a reading of the public perceptions of the client, as well as the effectiveness of its PR machinery. The latter tracked media value of coverage in terms of the equivalent space or air time for paid ads.

With the dominance now of digital media with its fake news, trolls, influencers, and real-time comments, the clipper, now more aptly named “scanner,” has his or its (robots or algorithms can do the job) thumbs full.

Instead of bulky clippings in a folder, the more likely data scan comes in the form of colored pie charts or graphs for a quick visual rendition. Often it also tracks the competition with a different color. Reaction time too has been collapsed to minutes rather than days.

The same distortion from the “spotlight fallacy” applies to those who scan the news for any mention of themselves or their companies. This behavioral bias refers to misplaced concern that we are always under scrutiny, or “in the spotlight.” (Is everybody looking at my mismatched socks at the socially distanced party?)


There is the feeling (mostly unfounded) that there is an obsession with a subject, only because of the biased or skewed selection of news items or posts. The client going through the scans wonders why the media is obsessed with him. His selective perception, defined by the bundled posts, skews his own self-perception. What is unscanned is ignored unless brought up by others with a different set of scanners.

What about the opinions and posts of subjects that do not relate to the “interested party”? Is this simply ignored? Is a real perspective then lost when undue attention is consumed only by related news?

Of course, the subjects themselves don’t always need scanners as they are consumers of social media too. Friends in their chat groups can refer items they may have missed. It’s a very decentralized consumption of news.

Here’s the catch. Those in the business of attracting the attention of targeted subjects have a business model to follow. It is, after all, a business in the digital world to gain and increase “followers” as well as address personalities or companies sensitive about their reputation. Aren’t they willing to pay reputation-builders to enhance their brand? Conversely, will they be addressing unfavorable posts with some incentive to their being discontinued?

What about fake news directed at targets? “Attack journalism” is alive and well. The old basher’s axiom has a simple business model, known in the traditional tabloid media as AC/DC — Attack Collect/ Defend Collect. This is a sequential model, relating to a single agent.

The only saving grace for those relying on media scan to check their standing in the public perception is attention span — how long a news consumer can stay with the same topic. If traditional media (print, radio, and TV) measured public interest in one issue, like corporate failures or celebrity scandals, in terms of days (usually a week), does digital media attract a shorter attention span?

Internet surfing tracks attention span in terms of “engagement.” And this is measurable. The thumb flick to another subject or site of possibly greater interest is triggered within six seconds.

What gives news, good or bad for certain subjects, a longer engagement are reactions and clarifications. In the case of sexual harassment, the popping up of one more new victim after a week can revive the prurient attention of the consumer. But even these news legs are given a shorter running track in social media. There are just too many topics coming up every six seconds.

Unfortunately, in these times of influencers, trolls, and dedicated wrecking crews, it is not enough for companies and individuals to be generous in their contribution to social upliftment. So much corporate generosity has been expended in these pandemic times to import vaccines, protect employees, and set up testing facilities for adopted communities.

There is always a chink in anyone’s reputational armor, never too small to be exploited. Those casting stones don’t bother to check if they are without sin themselves. The integrity of an accuser is not even an issue. It’s how loud or widespread the attack is.

Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda


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