Bennis Inc. | The Short Story: Why the Media Keeps It Simple
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The Short Story: Why the Media Keeps It Simple

The Short Story: Why the Media Keeps It Simple

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It’s the media’s job to tell the simplest story possible.

If I were attempting to follow their rules right now, I would allow this single sentence to be my complete blog post for this week. But luckily, I’m allowed a little more editorial freedom here and so I want to focus on uncovering a truth that has always perplexed me. Why does the media tend to chop and trim a story to squeeze into an unconventionally small sound bite or text box?

As a professional in the Public Relations field, I interact with the media often and in various ways. I try and make it a point to understand their wants and requests and accommodate them in an effort to build a positive working relationship.  Now with some years of experience under my belt, I’m better able to understand the media’s need to tell the simplest story possible. Regardless of how much “good” information you believe you’re providing for a full length feature or hour-long special, the fact is the media has one goal: to get the most important information to its audience. Keeping this in mind when you pitch your next story or submit a press release will help improve your odds of getting your story told – and told the way you want it. Here are what I believe to be the most basic and most essential reasons why the media keeps it so simple – don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief.

We hear in sound bites

It’s the chicken or the egg question when you ask if the media has trained its audience or the audience has the trained the media. The fact to remember is that we (the audience) hear in sound bites. We absorb news and information in such quick and limited quantities before we’re on to chasing the next shiny object. Therefore the media must keep to short and simple bursts of news to maintain our attention. Technology also plays a large part in this role. We’ve learned to abbreviate nearly every word and emotion possible and send it via text or email. Even social media limits the length of the information we share. The media has effectively adapted to such changes and it’s now common to see a whole news story boiled down into 140 characters or less.

There’s no room for confusion

Due to the limited length of information in sound bites, a story must also be made as simple as possible to avoid confusion. Members of the media are trained to write at an 8th grade reading level (slightly varying for each particular outlet) mainly for this same purpose. After presenting a segment on the evening news, the least desirable reaction from a viewer is “Huh?” Stories need to be easy to follow whether communicated on paper, TV or social media. If it doesn’t catch a viewer’s interest or doesn’t make sense, it will have limited retention.  For  those wanting to get their story told, this means  that you need to cut out all of the extra fat and fluff from your pitch and stick to the most direct and common-sense way to get your point across.

No one knows your story as well as you do

The final reason why so many times we may feel slighted by the media’s tendency to tell the simplest story possible is because we are unable to step away from our own story and view it like an outsider. The media (and ultimately the audience) have little to no background on your story. Meanwhile, you’ve been likely living and breathing it for years, if not a lifetime. Remember that you will almost always be the person who is most excited about what you’re saying – it’s natural. But also learn to not take it so personally when a reporter boils down your 5 page press release into a 10 second sound bite.

What have been some of your experiences with the media changing or editing your story? Do you think there are other motivating factors as to why they tell the simplest story possible? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Stephanie Shirley