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An Overeager People Magazine Assumed Betty White Would Live to 100

If you visited newsstands this week, you may have seen a cringeworthy People cover story celebrating White’s centennial, a few days after she passed away.
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January 1, 2022

Once something is printed on paper, you can’t take it back. Some blunders, of course, are worse than others. “Dewey Defeats Truman” is perhaps the gold standard of journalistic blunders, when a Chicago paper announced prematurely in 1948 that Harry Truman had lost the presidential election.

Now, we can add People magazine and Betty White to the list.

If you visited newsstands this week, you may have seen a cringeworthy People cover story celebrating White’s centennial, a few days after she passed away. The magazine simply assumed that the Hollywood icon would make it to Jan. 17, when she would have turned 100.

As someone who has to edit a print paper, I feel terrible for the editor who now must confront a supremely embarrassing episode that could have been avoided just by waiting a few weeks.

But let’s pull back and look at the broader context. When we wonder why the media’s credibility has reached all-time lows, it’s useful to remember that media has become, more than ever, a cutthroat business. With Facebook and Google sucking up most of the advertising dollars that used to go to media companies, many of these companies have struggled to survive and generate new revenue models.

Those models, whether based on subscriptions or general readership, depend on boosting their audiences to survive. All the clickbait tricks, therefore, become fair game—from preying on fears to classic sensationalism to celebrity lust to partisan reporting that pleases readers by reinforcing their narratives.

Seen through that lens, perhaps it’s not too surprising that an editor might want to “scoop” a “Betty White at 100” cover story. This is the fallout from pressure to stay in business, pressure to succeed, pressure to attain that holy grail of journalism—getting there first.

This intense pressure to attract more readers inevitably leads to an erosion of journalistic credibility. Coverage that sells takes precedence over coverage that informs, or enlightens. After all, if you think you’re in a business war, cutting corners here and there doesn’t seem that terrible.

This intense pressure to attract more readers inevitably leads to an erosion of journalistic credibility. Coverage that sells takes precedence over coverage that informs, or enlightens.

But it is.

When journalism puts commercial interests or partisan agendas first, we all suffer. If credibility is vital to a human relationship, imagine how much more so when a crucial and indispensable public service is involved.

The media companies that will maintain credibility in our chaotic media environment won’t be those that have to constantly rely on clickbait tricks to survive. It will be those that are supported by visionary philanthropists who believe fervently in the value of credible, independent journalism.

The support of such philanthropists will create media companies that can better resist the typical temptations of clickbait: Should we make that headline more alarming to boost readership, even though we know it’s not merited? Should we engage in celebrity worship? Should we avoid long, meaningful stories because they’re not as hot and timely? Should we take the easy way out and nourish just one side of the political divide?

The more financial and political pressure a media company feels, the more it is vulnerable to the compromises of the trade. That is how, over time, media credibility has eroded until it has reached all-time lows.

We need to nurture media companies whose primary agenda is not to make money or promote partisan views, but to report on the complex truth as best as it can, and let the chips fall where they may.

We live at a time when everyone, it seems, has some kind of agenda, whether political or otherwise. We need to nurture media companies whose primary agenda is not to make money or promote partisan views, but to report on the complex truth as best as it can, and let the chips fall where they may. Those media outlets deserve the support of philanthropists who share and honor that mission.

Just like anything printed on paper, once a company loses its credibility, it can’t get it back. We need a world where media companies gain the trust of readers and never lose it. Even if it means waiting a few weeks until a Hollywood star turns 100.

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