The Rise of Fishbowl Journalism

As a young account executive at a big PR firm, one of the things I looked forward to was prepping a client for “media training.” There was a certain delight in knowing that no matter how senior, seasoned or savvy our client was, there was no way he or she would ace the mock interview that opened the session. And they never did.

Without fail, “trainees” fell for every trap our faux reporter threw at them. The resulting story was filled with quotable quotes, unofficial information or unflattering commentary that made for a good gossipy read. It was a humbling experience, which paved the way for a productive work session. Fast forward to the session’s end, clients learned their lessons—among them, don’t say anything they would not want to see plastered on a newspaper’s front page—and they were proud of their progress.

fishbowl2One of the reasons behind the disastrous interview exercise is that society embraces the false premise that modern day news is actually news. It’s not. It never has been. Broadcast and cable news, newspapers, blogs, online platforms and social media are now, always have been, and always will be forms of entertainment.

“Breaking news” scandals are virtually hourly occurrences; and, what I call “fishbowl journalism” has become the “news” genre of choice for millennials and generations to come. Moreover, technology speeds up the “news cycle” so much so that we have developed an insatiable demand for this brand of entertainment.

With fishbowl journalism, “facts” are pictures; everyone has a camera in his or her pocket; and, people have a burning desire to share “experiences” in the moment. World events, tragedies and triumphs are communicated via “gotcha”  video, audio or photos that can be accessed on-demand and shared anywhere in an instant. A photo or video doesn’t just enhance the story, in many cases, it is the story.

Recent “top trending stories in social media” (have you noticed how news organizations are using that phrase which further feeds the frenzy?) include: Uber’s not-so-brilliant idea of digging up dirt on journalists; Bill Cosby’s on air request to “cut the tape from the interview”; Black Friday shopper brawls; Ray Rice’s legal victory; Janay Rice’s media blitz; and the list goes on.

It is truly amazing how naïve executives, celebrities and everyday citizens can be. Don’t they realize the devastating reality that the Internet has given rise to the permanent, sometimes not so flattering, record? Are these news stories? Sure, there is a kernel (or more) of news value in each of them; and, in my view, that is what should be explored, researched and reported. Yet, we hear little beyond the imagery.

Fishbowl journalism is here to stay. Yet, I wonder whether people actually like it, or whether people merely accept it as the norm, and are too busy to look beyond the picture or read beyond a tweet before it is shared. Will it fade away in favor of more responsible, credible news reporting? Doubtful, but one can dream. We get what we tolerate.

Today, the lessons of my early days of media training not only remain true, they have become more expansive and apply to everyone–executive and citizen alike.  Simply stated, never, ever say or do anything that you would not want to see, hear or shared everywhere. In a fishbowl, everyone is watching, recording and sharing.

News and entertainment have their place in our society but when combined, both suffer.

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