I was in a security line, waiting to get on a flight out of Karachi, Pakistan. A big security officer pulled me out of line to personally search me. In my face, he asked “are you an American?” When I nodded “yes,” he sneered and said “we don’t like Americans.”
I told him I didn’t believe him. He suspiciously asked what I meant. I said “I think you really do like Americans. And you like our music and fashion and technology. And our institutions. And you really love our educational system and freedoms. You just hate our government.” He paused, then said, “yes, that’s exactly what I mean.” I said “we aren’t very fond of our government either.” He paused and then said, “well, we hate ours!”
This is a snapshot of a very common attitude. People simply hate their governments. They think the government taxes too much and they get nothing for their tax dollars. They think those tax dollars are distributed unfairly. They think governments regulate too much. They think they are corrupt and biased.
While there is always some degree of corruption and bias in any government as well as a constant debate about what each should do with tax dollars, the reality is quite different from the perception. Most of the people employed by governments are hard-working and dedicated. And they do thousands of things for citizens. Everything from inspecting food, to guiding planes into and out of airports, to helping farmers get loans, to protecting the environment and keeping the peace. But people never see these things. They are invisible.
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What they see are the exceptions, the employees and programs that end up in the news: The corrupt administrator who steals tax dollars, the wasteful program that pads a political contributor’s pocket, the incompetent employee or ignored system repair.
This builds a one sided perception. All people ever see is the bad of government.
It is the result of two factors. The first is the government’s failure to communicate well. The second is the news media’s beliefs about itself.
We in the media view one of our fundamental obligations as telling truth to power. Just that expression makes us look noble. We are “the fourth estate”. We look for and expose weaknesses in government— the corrupt or inept official. The wasteful program. We believe exposing these things as part of our calling, our credo. “Crusaders for Truth,” if you will. Conveniently, these kinds of stories are also good for ratings. People love to see someone “stick it” to the government.
This journalistic attitude about truth and honesty is, in fact, a service to society. What we find is often real and wouldn’t be fixed unless we highlighted it. But it’s also a disservice. Journalism has multiple missions. Another one is to balance coverage, to try and make sure people see and hear both sides of an issue. There has never been any closely balanced approach to governmental reporting. It’s often just “political reporting,” which isn’t the same thing. Few “good news about government” stories get the coverage given to those focused on the negative. This of course shapes people’s perceptions. It drowns out what little reporting is done on how systems work, what programs have changed or progressed, or even what government departments do. This is a failed obligation of the news media, sadly amplified by social media with little interest in balance or accuracy.
This media shortcoming is compounded by what can only be described as poor, outdated government communications efforts. All but the smallest governments have communications or public information departments. The vast majority of what they communicate, however, is technocratic, over-sanitized press releases that fall on deaf ears. They not only aren’t audience friendly, they are barely readable. This is the lead line from a recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service press release:
“Washington D.C. – Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing a rule that defines the scope of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to provide regulatory certainty to the public, industries, states, tribes and other stakeholders.”
Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? I’m betting you have only a vague idea of what this press release is about. There is simply no reason for any normal person to pay attention to it or read further. Like all government agencies, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has lots of constituencies. It aims at the safest and often misses everyone else.
I’ve chosen the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as an example because I used to teach a media management and crisis communications course for the Service. I found the people smart, dedicated and absolutely passionate about their work. If you met them, you would be happy we are paying them to look after the environment. And they wanted to tell people what they did and why it was important. The bureaucracy, however, kept them from engaging that public.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gets sued. A lot. The public wants the environment protected as long as nothing has to change. So the Service has a constant eye on how lawyers will interpret every line it makes public. As a result, much of what it writes is unreadable by normal people. Its press releases are like plowing through a high school physics textbook. You know you should read it, but it’s awfully hard to pay attention. They write press releases for lawyers.
Besides making press releases much easier for the public to understand, the Service should be writing a lot fewer of them and releasing a lot more video clips. It’s begun doing that. If you check on YouTube, you’ll find some very good video examples about U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service people and its mission. But it’s a very slow transition. It should be doing more visual stories that show people what the issues are and what those employees do, not one every couple of months. In their case, that video would be of ducks and bears and squirrels and salmon. Things that would automatically interest people. And the public would get to see their passion and the work tax dollars pay for.
The operative word here is “show.” It is why people hate their governments. Neither the news media nor government public information departments show people enough of what the government does. So they think it does nothing.
What people actually see are old, usually white guys talking about the government: politicians. They demand the spotlight because they’re usually taking credit for what those employees do to get themselves re-elected. And since those employees work for these guys, they’re not going to argue. The problem is the politicians are mostly old white guys talking. They aren’t that interesting to look at. So the public tunes out and still doesn’t get to “see” what the government does even when it makes an effort to tell them.
There used to be a good reason for that. Producing and distributing video was difficult and expensive. It was much easier and cheaper to write a press release and send it to newspapers and TV and radio stations which would then distribute it for them. Or call the news media in for a press conference (more old white guys talking). Shooting and producing video stories used to require professional videographers and video editors, hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, extensive training and lots of time.
It can now be done with $50 of equipment that fits in your pocket or purse, the mobile phone already in there, and a little training. 12 year-olds know how to do it. Using a mobile phone to shoot video has some other advantages as well. Videos produced this way look a bit less professional and not perfectly polished, so they also look more genuine— more honest. And they can be distributed easily and quickly on YouTube, Hulu or Facebook.
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Some colleagues and I are now working with a few county and government officials in the United States and Romania via a small grant at the University of Georgia. We have come up with a small technical package, a short training program and a support system to get them started using video to talk to constituents. We’re encouraging them to do two things.
First, we’d like them to shoot video of themselves to communicate with constituents. They’re used to talking to people in person, which is great, but that can’t work for anything but small town politics. They could use social media but they avoid it. The trolls misinterpret any statement and shout down normal dialog. But video gives them additional tools: body language, inflection and intonation— much harder to misinterpret.
Second, we’d like them to shoot short videos on issues or government systems as they come up, either themselves or have government staff do it. Even the most basic functions are often missed— how security officials are trained, manufacturing defense technology, or how food inspectors do their jobs. Governments pay for all these things. Constituents rarely see them. A short video showing what inspectors look for on YouTube could be a very effective reference video for a discussion about that department’s budget. We’re recommending that someone else see the video before posting them though— what we journalists call “a second set of eyes” to make sure they’re factual.
It’s too early for us to say if the governments and political leaders we’re working with will adopt what we believe is a more effective way of communicating or if it will have much effect. We do know that hundreds of different interest groups now try to distort and misrepresent what government does. Communications can’t get much worse. What we’re after is clean governmental communications, constituents making decisions based on real issues and real people.
We don’t expect the news media to change its approach and show both the good and bad of government. We hope we can change governments so they communicate more effectively.
If we can show people what governments do, we think they won’t hate them as much.
David Hazinski is a Professor Emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia, a former NBC News correspondent, and he owns a consulting company that has helped launch 13 networks around the world, including the first private and 247 news channels in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.