Two simple ways to determine if you are doing audience-centric journalism or pandering to your audience

EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: As part of its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Dominion Voting Systems filed court papers earlier this month that included emails, text messages and other communication at the network, clearly stating Fox’s leadership knew Trump’s election fraud claims in 2020 were untrue.

Hosts like Laura Ingram, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity privately acknowledged many of the election-denying guests were “lying” or “insane” but continued to support them because they didn’t want to upset their audience.

The brief shows that Fox News stars and executives were afraid of losing their audience, which started to defect to the conservative cable news alternatives Newsmax and OAN after Fox News called Arizona for Mr. Biden. And they seemed concerned with the impact that would have on the network’s profitability.

On Nov. 12, in a text chain with Ms. Ingraham and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Carlson pointed to a tweet in which a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, fact-checked a tweet from Mr. Trump referring to Fox broadcasts and said there was no evidence of voter fraud from Dominion.

“Please get her fired,” Mr. Carlson said. He added: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Making things worse for Fox, Rupert Murdoch admitted as part of a deposition that he knew his hosts were falsely promoting this stuff and chose not to stop them from doing so.

Dominion’s filing casts Mr. Murdoch as a chairman who was both deeply engaged with his senior leadership about coverage of the election and operating at somewhat of a remove, unwilling to interfere. Asked by Dominion’s lawyer, Justin Nelson, whether he could have ordered Fox News to keep Trump lawyers like Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani off the air, Mr. Murdoch responded: “I could have. But I didn’t.”

Background and recap:

  • We covered the suit here when Dominion first filed it back in March 2021, in which the company stated Fox folks knew Trump was lying, but refused to say so on air.
  • Dominion’s suit for defamation noted Fox’s actions were reckless and created true harm to the company and its workers. Not only did the company stand to lose about $600 million over the next eight years, but it stated that many Dominion workers received threats from people who believed what Fox was selling.
  • Fox responded that the company was attempting to be fair and balanced and did not knowingly lie to its audience.

Dynamics of Writing Flashback: When we first pitched the “Dynamics of Media Writing,” the idea of audience-centricity was at the core of the model we were pushing. One of the earliest reviewers of the book pitch took us to task for essentially “pandering to an audience” instead of doing actual journalism.  In having to “sell” the book to the powers-that-be at SAGE, we had to address this issue both in the response and in the front of the book, so that people better understood what we meant.

The key point we wanted to make was that people have choices on where to go for their information and we can’t just tell them whatever it is we want to say and figure that’s good enough anymore. We need to understand who is out there using our content, what makes them connect with us so we can better connect with them and how best to present the information to them in a relevant, useful and interesting fashion. That’s helping your readers, not pandering to them.

TWO KEY WAYS TO KNOW WHICH ONE YOU’RE DOING: If you aren’t clear on how to tell the difference between catering and pandering, consider a couple thoughts below:

Seek Balance Within Reason: One of the things that protects journalists in presenting information that might turn out to be incorrect is the fair reporting privilege. In short, courts have held that if reporters are telling both sides (or however many sides are clearly present) in a fair and equal fashion.

If you have Group A telling you Group B is trying to kill the environment with its housing project, did you talk to Group B about those accusations and give those folks a chance to respond? If you are told a police report shows the mayor of your town is running a cocaine ring out of the back of the local thrift store, did you make every reasonable attempt to get that report and interview the mayor? These are all reasonable things.

The “within reason” portion is where we provide kind of a buffer against the need to interview people who think the reason the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade is because they’re Illuminati Lizard People who are attempting to turn humans into a colony of breeders whose offspring will feed the reptile race on their home planet. There is a limit, but letting people blather on about things you know not to be true (especially any person you call “a nut job” behind the scenes).


Tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear: The key aspect of audience-centricity is knowing what the audience needs to know and making sure you deliver that content. People don’t always LIKE to hear things they NEED to know, like if taxes are going up, why eggs now cost more than Taylor Swift tickets or how many more months the highway they take will be under construction. The most popular part of the news around here is the weather, which pretty much sucks from about late October until God shows mercy sometime around Memorial Day. Still, people NEED to know if the should plan extra time for a trip, plan to put away a little more money for the IRS or switch from eggs to something less pricey, like lobster.

The pandering folks at Fox were more worried that if they told their audience things they didn’t want to hear, the audience would go somewhere else where a different group of hairdos would. Fox knew instinctively that they didn’t have an audience that loved them. Instead, they were basically “sugar dating” a group of people who would dump them once they no longer got what they wanted.

I’m quite certain Walter Cronkite wasn’t all that thrilled to tell the country that JFK had died or that it was clear the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but he did it anyway, because people needed to know these things and he felt an obligation to his profession and viewers to say them. And I’m sure more than a few people weren’t thrilled to hear these things, but Cronkite had built up enough credit at the Bank of Credibility that those folks stuck with him.

As my first journalism teacher once told me, “If you want to be loved for doing your job, go teach kindergarten, because you’re not going to get that here in journalism.”


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