How Two Presumptive Losers Manipulated the News Media

Written by Andy Ludlum on June 12, 2016.

The 2016 presidential primary season opened my eyes. I didn't think it would be quite so easy to manipulate the news media.

Neal Gabler writing in says the news media likes to craft election coverage as scripted political drama. He quotes Harvard political scientist Thomas Patterson who said there are only four media narratives in an election campaign: "a candidate is leading, or trailing, or gaining ground or losing ground. The press dumps on losers and those who are losing support, criticizes front-runners and praises those who catch fire - at least as long as the bandwagon lasts."

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June of last year the media didn't take him seriously. One expert said Trump had a better chance of playing in the NBA finals than winning the Republican nomination. But Trump refused to be scripted into the media's role of loser. At that Trump Tower rally, the Donald tossed his first stink bomb to the media accusing Mexico of "not sending their best. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." As he parceled out new inflammatory story lines like dog treats, Trump's willing new partners couldn't get enough. Quickly an incestuous relationship began that neither wanted to end.

How many hours did we wait, just looking at the empty Trump podium? News organizations puffed and preened with each Trump "exclusive" they scored. Even journalism's ultra-pious patted themselves the back for their high standards when they stopped allowing Trump to check-in by cellphone on the Sunday morning talk shows.

In March, the New York Times estimated Trump had received $2 billion in free airtime, or what is misleadingly known as "earned media." Earned media is news and commentary on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media.

No candidate of either party benefitted more from free airtime than Trump. He received almost double the amount given to all the Republican candidates combined! Not surprisingly, with all that free air time, Trump was spending very little on TV advertising, worrying local TV executives around the country.

Bernie Sanders was also scripted by the news media as a loser. He was the longest of longshots, at best he was a pleasant diversion in what was to be an easy, Hillary Clinton coronation. If you look at the TV News Archive's Candidate Television Tracker you can see Bernie was getting only half as many mentions as Hillary on cable news networks like CNN and MSNBC. But if Sanders was scripted by the news media as a presumptive loser, how did he turn things around? Gabler credits Sanders' very active social media presence. He says unlike Trump who tweeted absurdities too tasty for the news media to resist, Sanders used social media to draw big crowds at a moment's notice, and to bring in a whole lot of money. Gabler says the power of Sanders social media compelled the media to send its political drama to rewrite. Once the media got on the Sander's bandwagon, crowds, fundraising and poll numbers all increased. But it was all too little, too late. With Sanders hanging on through the last primary and insisting on having a meaningful role in the party convention, the media has now turned its attention to what it does best, vindicating its original casting choice by portraying Sanders as a stubborn, sore loser.

So far, the news media's performance in the 2016 political drama has bombed. But hopefully we can fix it in post.

If You Barge In On Someone Blowing On Their Cellphone, Turn and Walk Away

Written by Andy Ludlum on January 31, 2016.

Here I am with my face pressed into a cardboard device that looks like one of those View-Master toys I used to play with as a child. No, I haven't found a long lost box in the garage packed with stereoscopic views of the Grand Canyon. I'm watching a nine minute New York Times virtual reality film film promising to put me in front of four presidential candidates as they make their pitches to Iowa voters.

The device is called Google Cardboard, a low-cost, fold-out cardboard viewer designed to stimulate interest and development in virtual reality. Just stick your phone into the device and through a corresponding app you can find yourself on the campaign trail or following the lives of three of the 30 million children driven from their homes by war. The Times is promising to produce two virtual reality videos a month - a mix of hard news, breaking news and features. The BBC and ABC are also experimenting with virtual reality.

Google Cardboard, which can cost less than $5 is at the bottom of the viewer food chain. The big boys like Samsung, Sony and Facebook have or will produce headsets this year with prices ranging as high as $599. Everyone seems to agree virtual reality is going to require more than just a 360 degree view and there's a booming market for a new style of multi-sensory storytelling.

Last holiday season in New York, Glade, the air-freshener people, created a Museum of Feelings to show how fragrances can bring emotions to life. Edible Cinemas is a series of film screenings where audience members receive a tray with numbered containers holding a mini-serving of food or drink. Lights cue you to take a taste or drink selected to correspond to the movie's plot line. And who could ignore Little Bird, a vibrator that links up to erotica on a smartphone app so that readers can - well, you get the idea. You can even alter the good vibrations by shaking or blowing on the phone's screen.

Now that you've cooled off, virtual reality offers tremendous opportunities for what's called immersive journalism. Will your opinions change if you are suddenly transported into the middle of a news story? Ethically, what are the limits if you drop viewers into a virtual reality war zone? Will you react differently to a person's story if you lose your comfortable distance and suddenly perceive you are sitting in the same room with them?

What did I learn from my from my short virtual reality tour on the campaign trail? Ted Cruz's small, intimate gatherings were like prayer meetings with lots of touching and picture taking. I could see the hopeful, youthful faces in the crowds at the Bernie Sanders rally. The reactions of Hillary Clinton's supporters seemed more subdued, which I didn't find surprising as there was the most physical distance between the crowd and the candidate at Hillary's event. Donald Trump's big arena rally was a carefully orchestrated event complete with a breathy opening prayer to little girls singing patriotic songs, oddly reminiscent of Chinese political performances. Most importantly, all my reactions were "feelings" and not something I would likely get from traditional political news coverage. Maybe just an indication why 2016 is being called The Year of Virtual Reality.

Read the Bill Carol or Take a Foot Bail

Written by Andy Ludlum on November 20, 2015.

Another week of mind-numbingly dumb stuff on radio and television. First, an example of how news people can be their own worst enemies. Friday morning on CNN Newsroom, anchor Carol Costello interviewed Congressman Kurt Schrader of Oregon, one of 47 Democrats to join the Republican majority and vote in favor of a bill to tighten controls on admitting refuges from Syria and Iraq to the United States.

After pointing out that "some on Twitter" are calling the Congressman a traitor to Oregon and xenophobe, Costello asked, "Are you concerned?" Schrader replied, "No, because there's been a lot of misrepresentation in the press - just like you did a minute ago - about how this would limit Syrian refugees into this country. I ask everyone in Oregon and the country: just read the bill. It's all [of] three pages - very straightforward - and all it talks about is making sure that our intelligence and security forces - including the FBI - certify that people coming in through the refugee program - which every member of Congress wants to continue - are not a threat, under the current processes, to people of the United States." She asked Schrader the non-question question that "some say the intent of this bill is to really create so many checks that it will be impossible for any Syrian refugee to come into this country any time soon." "Well, that's absolutely false - absolutely false. Again, read the bill."

By now it's pretty clear that Costello and her producers have not read the three page bill. I should have known she was on shaky ground when I heard so many questions starting with "some say." What I wanted to hear was, "Congressman, I have read the bill. And so have Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey who both say it would create significant administrative burdens. Lynch says to have the "FBI director or other members of the administration to make personal guarantees would effectively grind the program to a halt."

Read the entire interview and you can see Costello's lack of preparation left her in the position of being "corrected" by the Congressman and unable to challenge any of his points. It also gave plenty of ammunition to accuse her of liberal bias. Biased? Maybe. Asking dumb questions because she wasn't prepared? For sure. For Costello's sake I hope she was watching during the next commercial break and heard the pitch for the supplement Prevagen and its promises of giving you a healthy brain.

Finally, a WTF moment from Los Angeles traffic reporter describing the end of a police chase by saying the cornered driver took "a foot bail!" What? You mean she got out of the car and ran? I realize traffic service reporters are not always the most experienced broadcasters but everyone needs to be able to tell a story clearly without nonsense jargon. One more reason why traffic reporting on the radio may have seen its day as people turn to their phones instead of their radios for information.

Does Every Picture Tell a Story?

Written by Andy Ludlum on October 24, 2015.

Joy! Rapture! There are 250 new emojis on my iPhone and at last I can flip you the bird in my text messages. Not only can I be rude, I can do it while still being politically correct with a multicultural smorgasbord of middle finger salutes.

If I were to give you the middle finger in person I'd be running the risk of getting punched. But he emoji puts me at a safe distance and out of harm's way. That's the knock on emojis as a communication tool. They're a superficial, online sub-language, added in a feeble attempt to deliver emotion when we are not communicating face-to-face. Some go so far as to say emojis make people dumb. I suspect dumb people were already dumb, but the improper use of emojis just makes them more obnoxious.

Yet the use of emojis and their acceptance is increasing, even in workplace communication. And a research study found ("Yes Mom, for the last time, I'm paid to study emojis.") looking at emojis triggered the same facial recognition response as when we look at a human face. It's similar to the reaction we have when we are told stories, we begin to relate to the experiences in the stories as if they are our own. The scientists also found emails with emojis not only made the recipient like the sender more but they also believed the sender liked them more.

Clearly we react emotionally when see emojis. With emotion being a common thread, everyone easily understands most emojis. Since emojis are not a complete, nuanced language some say they are too limiting to be effective storytelling tools. Yet a recent emoji storytelling contest resulted in some entertaining results. And one more benefit, it you can't resist using the middle finger, it's a great way to end a long conversation.

Storytelling and the emoji-pocalypse

To hell with facts! We need stories! - Ken Kesey

Written by Andy Ludlum on October 19, 2015.

Our brains are hungry for stories. Fortunately, social media makes it easier than ever for us to save, share and enjoy stories. Yet it is rare to find powerful storytelling in television and radio newscasts.

We remember stories better than facts because our brains perceive little distinction between the story we are told and something that is actually happening. Advertisers understand this. We're engaged by the storytelling in the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials and that builds an emotional bond between us and the beer. It's said we spend half our waking hours creating little stories as we daydream. Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal said, "We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, story-like way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes - vain, aggressive, dirty - come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized."

The ratings company Nielsen concluded we crave a personal connection with the way we gather information. So if stories are an essential part of our nature why is it so unusual to find good ones in a typical newscast? I believe the opportunities are there to use the simple elements of plot, characters and a narrative point of view to tell engaging stories to news listeners and viewers and not only respect, but excell at the craft of good journalism.

Seven Ways to Become a Better Storyteller

Written by Andy Ludlum on October 19, 2015.

Storytelling is how we make sense of our lives. Stories have been shared over the ages as religious parables, as hunters and animals scratched on cave walls and told as myths and legends whenever people gathered around a fire. Storytelling is in everything from tattoos to hip-hop.

There's a lot of talk these days about how broadcast journalists need to be great storytellers. The truth is most of them are not telling stories at all. They're just reciting ordinary facts in a predictable manner.

And what happens to you, the listener or viewer? All that "stuff" goes in one ear and out the other. It's not at all memorable and you make no emotional connection with the story.

Here are seven simples steps you can take to become a better storyteller.

Read More

How to Get On the Right Track With Good Storytelling

Updated by Andy Ludlum on December 9, 2015.

The founder of GoPro, Nicholas Woodman told an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show that his tiny video cameras are much more than just hardware.

GoPros have been used to create millions of stunning video stories and have turned Woodman's company from a hardware manufacturer into a multi-billion dollar media company.

Why? Because a GoPro satisfies the basic need people have to tell their stories. "The day that people stop sharing stories, we've got a problem, but I don't think that is going to happen anytime soon.

Look at this list from the blog Longreads. All of them are powerful storytelling that build an emotional connection with you.

Storytelling can even give you a fresh view of controversial story such as this one on Michael Brown Sr., the father of the teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. No stranger to controversy, author Salman Rushdie said, ""A good story is one that makes you want to listen. The art of telling a story is keeping an audience sitting there and from throwing things at you."

Will Serial Bring Back Storytelling From the Golden Age of Radio?

Written by Andy Ludlum on October 19, 2015.

It seemed everyone was listening to the first season of Serial, the top-rated podcast on iTunes that re-examines the 16 year old murder of a Baltimore high school student. It's rumored Season 2 will focus on Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by Taliban forces.

The marriage of episodic storytelling with the binge-listening-friendly podcast led many pundits to proclaim 2014 as the "Year of the Podcast." Even traditional broadcasters are trying to package their content as podcasts to appeal to Millennials happy to feast on an entire season in one sitting on Netflix.

Even with a less than satisfying ending, the first season of Serial clearly shows the appeal of storytelling techniques that have long been used in print.

You might get an argument from today's broadcast news programmer that it is extremely difficult to create on-air appointment listening. Which is why many of the attempts will be podcasts. But traditional broadcasters need to accept that good storytelling is something their listeners will not only crave, but demand.

We've Been Missing You in the News

Written by Andy Ludlum on October 19, 2015.

The typical news story tends to be a collection of facts about an event punctuated with official comment. No matter how well these facts are stacked or organized they will always fall short of good storytelling because you're never given the opportunity to form an emotional connection with the people in the story.

The components of a story are simple. First you set the scene. Think of the classic scene-setter, "Once upon a time" from fairy tales. Then you tell the listener who the story is about and help them build an emotional connection. This allows them to see themselves as part of the story. Next add tension or conflict. Finally you resolve the conflict by giving it relevance to the listener.

In news radio you are more likely to make an emotional connection and hear the word "you" in commercials than in the news stories. It's a missed opportunity. Marketers are way ahead of many journalists in understanding Why People Love a Good Story and How to Tell Yours. Here's another approach sharing the 7 Secrets of Highly Effective Storytelling.

About Andy Ludlum

Andy Ludlum has been helping journalists tell compelling stories on radio and television for 40 years.

He's programmed legendary radio stations in Seattle, Kansas City and Los Angeles. Andy's radio and television stations have been recognized for excellence in news broadcasting receiving three national RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Awards for Overall Excellence, local Emmys and Golden Mikes from the Radio Television News Association of Southern California.

The Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honored Andy in 2012 as a Distinguished Journalist in radio.