Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fox News Channel

The news on television isnt true. It cant be. Theres too much to say, too many points of view, too many stories to cover. Television can never deliver all of the facts and every point of view. The best a television journalist can hope to do is combine the crowd-pleasing, ad-selling stories on fires and crime with the insightful but less popular stories on world events. And, we hope, to do it without an obvious bias.

Fox News, founded in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, took a different approach. Fox knows that bias exists in any news organization and decided to use this unavoidable problem to frame the news in a way that matched the worldview of their target audience.

What worldviews does this audience share?

a desire for a consistent story

a point of view that emphasizes personal responsibility, conservative ethics and Republican politics

the appearance of fairness, as opposed to being pandered to

Thats the way Fox News decided to establish its bias, the way it chose to frame its story. Instead of its being a random mix of individual biases, Fox News chose to tell a coherent story, a lie that its viewers can choose to believe.

Lets start with their slogan, Fair and Balanced. While one could argue whether their news is fair and balanced, the slogan itself is brilliant. It flatters the audience, reminds them that they are not a tiny minority and reinforces a message that their worldview is valid and appropriate. News for Conservatives is precisely the wrong message. Subtlety makes the story work. By acting as though they represent the majority opinion, they frame their story in a way that this audience understands.

Slogans matter, especially here. The worldview of the Fox News audience was that they were disrespected by the established media. Suddenly this audience was watching a network that broadcast news that they agreed with. And they were told that they were the mainstream and that the news that they were hearing was fair and balanced. It made the story irresistible.

Every day Fox management sends a memo to all of its writers, producers and on-air talent. The memo outlines the talking points for the day. In other words, its the story they intend to tell. By managing the news to fit the story (as opposed to the other way around) Fox develops a point of view; it tells a story that viewers are happy to believe. It gives the viewers a lie to tell themselves and, just as important, to share.

By providing a consistent, easy-to-talk-about message, Fox News is telling a story that matches the worldview of their audienceand is easy for that audience to spread. While you can argue about their politics, it is impossible to argue with their success. Roger Ailes understands that he is in the storytelling business and has used that insight to build a multibillion-dollar business.

None of this would matter if Fox News didnt also enjoy climbing ratings. Why does their viewership go up? Because, armed with the lie they believe in, Fox News viewers have an easy time of converting their friends. As a result, people who would never have chosen Fox News five years ago now watch it regularly. Not because they were persuaded with advertising. Because they were persuaded by their friends and family.

- Seth Godin

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