It's Not Personal (1)

My library had a bad week, sort of.

I say sort of because really we’re okay. But a piece which ran on a local newscast and shed light on a serious health issue in our community included some bad publicity for the library. And for many of our staff, it felt like an attack.

The story was about drug overdoses at the library. This particular television station claims court records show an uptick of overdoses at the library. We were not shown the records that allegedly led this particular station to make that allegation. They asked us to comment without showing us the proof, and that’s bad journalism. Consequently, our library decided not to comment on the story.

But some staffers were demoralized by the story. They felt it was a personal attack. And I found that I kept having to repeat the words, “Don’t take it personally” to my colleagues as we moved through the news cycle.

So I wanted to take a second and explain how local news media work and why reports of this nature may seem like a personal vendetta against your organization, when really they are not.

Television programs, including local news, are a slave to the ratings system. Four times a year,  (February, May, July, and November) stations compete to get the highest ratings. Those ratings determine the amount of money the station can charge advertisers for air time in their shows. The higher the ratings numbers, the higher the rate the television stations can charge.

Stations spend a lot of time and resources planning stories that will connect with viewers and drive ratings. They will often start taking submissions from reporters and producers months in advance, and stories are assigned based on the likelihood that they’ll draw the biggest audience for the station. Many of these stories are exposes and the more sensational, the better. I’m certain that’s what happened in this case. Someone did some digging through court records for a story about drug overdoses and noticed a trend in overdoses at the library. They decided to go after it. I totally get it. As a news producer, I would have jumped on the chance to do a story about drug use at the library. It would have been sensational. But it would not have been a personal attack.

No journalist sits in a newsroom and says, “You know what? The library is awful. Let’s find a way  to attack them.” That only happens in the movies. Rather, journalists believe see a trend and they report it. There’s no vendetta. They feel an obligation to inform the public about perceived safety issues, and they trust the public to make up their own minds about blame, guilt, and potential danger.

Please don’t take these stories personally. Rather, they are an opportunity for your organization to discuss a crisis communications plan and the importance of having procedures in place to help deal with any major catastrophe that might occur in the future.

If you ever find your library at the center of an expose’ by a local television station or newspaper, don’t view it as an attack. Make the decision whether to comment or not, and then use it as a chance to learn and evaluate your own media response to crises. It’s also a great time to evaluate how you respond to negative criticism.

Every story is an opportunity to showcase your library is a positive light by showing how your administration responds to issues. No news organization is ever “out to get you.”

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