The Outrage Industries: The Role of Journalists and Activists in Risk Controversies
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The Outrage Industries: The Role of Journalists and Activists in Risk Controversies

“What about the role of media sensationalism?” “Why aren’t you talking about activists who mislead the public for their own ends?” Isn’t outrage at us really somebody else’s fault?

Paul Holmes

By Peter M. Sandman

It’s a question I can count on hearing at every presentation I give on how to manage risk controversies. Usually it comes while I’m telling my audience that they reap what they sow—that excessive public outrage about small hazards is attributable mostly to the unresponsiveness and untrustworthiness of the organizations that are responsible for those hazards. The questioner tends to adopt a rather plaintive tone.

“What about the role of media sensationalism?” “Why aren’t you talking about activists who mislead the public for their own ends?” Isn’t outrage at us really somebody else’s fault?

This column is my answer. It’s not written for journalists and activists, though they are welcome to read it (and welcome to reply, if so moved). It’s written for corporate (and government) risk managers who imagine that journalists and activists are responsible for their problems with the public. I am not aiming to persuade my corporate clients to enjoy the company of journalists and activists; a few already do, and the rest probably never will. I hope only to persuade them to see journalists and activists as less alien than they now suppose, and to understand better the role in risk controversies of what I call “the outrage industries.”

Certainly it is true that many journalists and nearly all activists are in the outrage business. Dwelling on things that anger or frighten the public — that is, dwelling on outrage — helps the media attract an audience, which in turn helps media owners woo advertisers and individual reporters win prizes and professional advancement. It helps activist groups attract members, which in turn helps them get financial contributions (not to mention media coverage). And apart from their selfish goals, journalists and activists accomplish needed social changes by dwelling on things that anger or frighten the public. A journalist or activist without a nose for outrage would be severely occupationally disabled.

Not all journalists—not even most journalists—fit this description. Though reporters have long liked to see themselves as activists who write, often quoting Finley Peter Dunne to the effect that journalism aims to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” the muckraking tradition in journalism coexists with a stenographic tradition that is less prideful but no less robust.

At the moment, the stenographic tradition seems to be in the ascendant. When you consider those powerful institutions you identify with, admire, and wish to see protected from public obloquy, odds are you see journalists as altogether too nosy, intrusive, and sensationalist. But think about the powerful institutions you dislike, and a different vision comes to mind: Reporters who parrot their sources’ self-serving statements and help protect them from much-needed exposure. Both images capture part of the truth.

Activists are less complicated. Outrage is their stock-in-trade.

Journalism and activism are by no means the only outrage industries. Politicians spend a lot of time telling people how outraged they ought to be about something. So do plaintiff’s attorneys. So, sometimes, do union leaders. Even corporations have been known to take a stab at trying to mobilize outrage against a competitor. Consider for example the many company-inspired campaigns to rouse the public against unfair product dumping (on one side of the border) or unfair trade tariffs (on the other side).

There are also a number of less obvious candidates for our list of outrage industries — that is, industries that try to get people more concerned, more upset, and more inclined to take action about some risk. Medicine belongs on the list; doctors work hard to persuade their patients to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, take their medicine, get vaccinated. Health educators are in the outrage business. So are safety managers. And of course the champions at alerting people to risk are undoubtedly parents, constantly warning their children that one thing or another is dangerous.

The outrage industries thus include a wide range of organizations, activities, and goals—some of which my corporate clients find objectionable and some of which they support wholeheartedly. Trying to get people upset enough about smoking that they quit or upset enough about falling debris that they wear their hardhats isn’t very different from trying to get people upset enough about factory emissions that they join a class action lawsuit or pressure regulators to move against the emitter. For that matter, trying to get people upset enough about WMDs in Iraq that they support an invasion is also about rousing people’s outrage, as is trying to get people upset enough about the war in Iraq that they support withdrawal, as is trying to get people upset enough about racial discrimination that they advocate affirmative action, as is trying to get people upset enough about an impending hurricane that they cooperate with an evacuation order.

It is possible to draw a distinction between the people who try to arouse concern or fear and thus motivate others to take precautions (like doctors and parents) and the people who try to arouse anger and thus motivate others to demand precautions (like journalists and activists). Still, they’re all on the “Watch out!” side of the risk debate, while corporate defenders are on the “Calm down!” side of that debate.

What are the rules that govern the debate?

1. The outrage industries do not manufacture outrage. They amplify it.

Journalists, activists, and the rest have a nose for outrage. They sense it, gravitate toward it, and capitalize on it.

In the process they certainly make it worse. One of the best established principles in the risk perception and risk communication field is that awareness of other people’s outrage increases one’s own outrage. We get more frightened when we know others are frightened, angrier when we know others are angry. This is part of what’s known as the “social amplification of risk,” a term invented by Roger Kasperson in the 1980s that has since inspired a substantial body of research and theory.

Obviously, media and activist groups play key roles in the social amplification of risk. That’s why authoritarian governments are quick to shut down hostile newspapers and to jail activist leaders. Without journalists and activists to play their social amplification role, people tend to nurse their political grievances more privately, and those grievances are therefore less likely to explode into public controversy ... or revolution.

But while journalists and activists do amplify outrage, they do not manufacture it. They cannot manufacture it. When they try to arouse outrage about an issue that doesn’t actually bother people, they fail. Smart activists pick their campaigns, and smart reporters pick their stories, because they’re already rich in outrage potential. They bring that potential to the surface, and in the process they amplify it. But if it’s not there in the first place, they simply don’t get anywhere.

Think of journalists and activists as vultures. (It probably won’t go over too well to call them vultures to their face.) Now remember what you know about natural history. Vultures don’t kill their prey. They eat carrion, meat that’s already dead. So if your company has a vulture problem, by definition you have a prior problem. If you find a way to stop committing organizational suicide, the vultures will still be vultures — but they will be circling somebody else’s carcass instead of yours. Figure out what you are doing that keeps attracting the journalistic and activist vultures. That’s the root of your problem. Stop blaming the scavengers.

Or think of journalism and activism as just another business. (Some journalists and activists may find this a more insulting analogy than vultures.) Like most other businesses, they have more investment opportunities than investment capital—that is, there are more juicy targets than staff to go after them. So, like most other business people, journalists and activists look to allocate their effort where it will yield the greatest profit, the best return on investment. They pick the low-hanging fruit. They mine where the vein is richest.

Think about that. With all that’s going on in the world that has the capacity to arouse public outrage, they chose you! You were the lowest-hanging fruit. You were the richest ore body. Kinda makes you think you must be doing something wrong....

Nobody likes this analysis. Corporate (and government) leaders who are under attack don’t like to think that it must be something they did. They’d much rather blame the media or the activists. Crusading journalists and dedicated activists, meanwhile, don’t like to see themselves as eating dead meat or harvesting low-hanging fruit. They’d much rather believe that they decided, on the merits, who most deserved public exposure and public condemnation, and then made it happen.  

Both sides in the battle prefer to see the outrage industries as initiators rather than mere exploiters; both sides like to believe that the outrage industries manufacture outrage. But the truth is, you manufacture your own outrage. They just notice and take advantage.

2. Outrage amplification is honorable work. So is outrage reduction.

Another thing both sides have in common: Each tends to see the other as dishonorable. In fact, each side is so convinced that the other is dishonorable that it comes as something of a shock that the other side doesn’t think so too.

Activists and journalists often proceed on the assumption that corporate leaders are self-awarely evil, the sorts of people who in an earlier era would have twirled their moustaches and tied maidens to railroad tracks. Corporate leaders often proceed on exactly the same assumption about journalists and activists. “You mean they don’t see themselves as destroying the environment for profit and then pretending they didn’t do it?” asks one group. “You mean they don’t know they’re making mountains out of molehills just to build their audience and feed their egos?” asks the other.

Corporations do sometimes damage the environment for profit, of course, and journalists and activists do sometimes make mountains out of molehills. But it is vanishingly rare for either to see themselves that way. Both see themselves as doing good and important work — building the economy; exposing evil; providing jobs; fighting for social change; meeting their obligations to shareholders, members, readers or viewers. Misbehavior is common (on both sides), but it is far more likely to be self-deceptive than self-aware.

For reasons that Leon Festinger convincingly outlined in his 1950s “theory of cognitive dissonance,” even those corporate managers who start out knowingly doing harm for profit end up convinced that the harm is minor, that the societal benefit is substantial, and that profit is merely a fringe benefit. By the time they get around to saying so, they mean it. And even those journalists and activists who start out knowingly blowing things all out of proportion for the sake of ego or ideology or contributions or market share end up convinced that they are saving the world from real devastation. By the time they get around to saying so, they mean it too. Most mean it from the outset; their self-serving and socially responsible motives coexist comfortably.

In short, the people who say the risk is tiny and try to get the public to tolerate it are almost always telling the truth as they see it. The people who say the risk is huge and try to get the public to find it intolerable are also telling the truth as they see it. With the help of cognitive dissonance, when needed, both sides are behaving honorably.

Doesn’t it matter what the objective truth is? Sure. Leave aside the philosophical conundrum of how to distinguish objective truth from various subjective (but mostly sincere) perceptions of truth. Insofar as you know who you think is right, that’s whose side you ought to be on. My point is only that both sides genuinely think they’re right — so genuinely that they can’t quite believe the other side doesn’t secretly agree.

It’s also worth noting that both outrage amplification and outrage reduction are necessary processes in order to make things better. Here, in brief, is Sandman’s theory of social change:

Corporate capitalism is unsurpassed at generating wealth, but inevitably there are losers as well as winners. Spreading the benefits and mitigating the damage is the job not just of governments but also of civil society — and especially of citizens whose outrage has been aroused. So we need journalists and activists to amplify the outrage, mobilizing pressure on companies to make improvements (that is, changes that the journalists and activists judge to be improvements).

Without that pressure, companies wouldn’t improve. Thanks to that pressure, they do (sometimes) improve. They do so mostly because the pressure is costing them money, and because they believe improving will reduce the pressure and thus increase profitability. Since companies are created to maximize shareholder value, they rightly defer to non-shareholder interests only when outrage (or sometimes the prospect of outrage) has made it more profitable to defer than to resist.

But outraged citizens don’t necessarily notice corporate improvements. And the journalists and activists who mobilized the outrage have all sorts of reasons not to point out the improvements; as a rule they see the improvements as too little too late. The outrage faucet is easier to turn on than to turn off. Yet unless companies can find ways to reduce public outrage, and thereby get some benefit from their improvements, they have no incentive to improve. So the companies need an outrage reduction strategy aimed at enabling their stakeholders to notice approvingly that their performance has actually improved.

I am happy to help amplify the outrage. I am happy to help reduce it. (Like an arbitrageur, I get paid for both.) It’s a cycle: Journalists and activists pump up the outrage; the company damps it back down. Substantive improvement happens along the way — and wouldn’t happen nearly as effectively without this outrage dialectic.

Sometimes not much substantive improvement is needed. Perhaps what the company is doing substantively is only minimally objectionable. But the company has been arrogant, unresponsive, even dishonest — making it easy for critics to mobilize outrage. Inevitably the outrage focuses less on the misbehaviors the company is guilty of (process misbehaviors: acting like a jerk) than on the misbehaviors it is innocent of (spreading cancer through the neighborhood, say).

Here the company faces three tasks: recognizing and acknowledging that it really has been acting like a jerk; changing its jerky behavior; and in the context of those two, convincing its stakeholders that it hasn’t actually been spreading cancer through the neighborhood. This, too, is a task I am happy to help with. And once again it results in a social good — a company that behaves less arrogantly, unresponsively, and dishonestly toward its stakeholders.

When I give presentations to corporate environmental professionals, I sometimes ask my audience to raise their hands if they think their job serves a positive social purpose. Most people raise their hands. Then I ask them to raise their hands if they think they would have the job they have if not for environmental activists and investigative reporters. Many of the hands go down. Companies end up proud of the improvements they were forced to make. That’s healthy; it’s a way of taking ownership of those improvements. But companies also end up imagining they’d have made the same improvements even without the pressure—and that’s just self-deception.

Somebody’s got to amplify and organize the outrage. Somebody’s got to make the improvements. And then somebody’s got to reduce the outrage again—not just in order to reward the company for improving, but also in order to free up the outrage for the next target.
 
3. On both sides, lies are rare, but half-truths are common. That part is symmetrical.

A year or so ago I consulted for a mining industry client in Asia that was locked in battle with a particular activist group. According to my client, its activist critics were liars. They were lying about what the company had done, lying about the health damage to villagers, lying about the sampling data. Were they really lying, I asked, or just exaggerating, distorting, and telling half-truths?

They were just plain lying, my client said. So we spent an hour together hunting for lies on the activist group’s website. We couldn’t find any. We did find lots of debatable claims and one-sided statements.   Then we went to my client’s website, where we found similarly debatable claims and one-sided statements... but again no actual lies—though I don’t doubt its critics firmly believe the company lies incessantly.

The distinction between lying and misleading without quite lying matters more in law than in ethics. Most parents have no compunctions about punishing a child who has cleverly crafted a misleading but literally accurate truth (half-truth, usually), pretty much ignoring the child’s protestations that “I didn’t lie!” As victims, similarly, we are at least as angry when someone has successfully misled us by telling the truth dishonestly as we would have been if the communicator had simply lied.

We may enjoy stories of hucksters who manage to give misimpressions without any factual misstatements—but we don’t like being huckstered. A typical story (this one apparently an urban legend, though I thought it was real until I started looking for the citation) concerns a fish company that needed to unload its stock of unfashionable white salmon in competition with the more popular pink variety. The ad that did the trick: “Guaranteed not to turn pink in the can.”

Even in law, there is ample precedent for regulating commercial speech that doesn’t actually lie. Though technically true, “guaranteed not to turn pink in the can” might not meet today’s legal standards for truth in advertising. By contrast, non-commercial speech in the U.S. is pretty thoroughly unregulated, thanks to the First Amendment. Even outright lies are permissible except in special circumstances.

Still, advocates on both sides of risk controversies seek to win adherents with carefully crafted half-truths, not lies (and not the whole truth). The effort to mislead without actually lying is one of the main reasons why news releases and other public documents go through so many drafts. It takes hard work to give the impression you want to give and still manage to tell the truth.

Consider this example from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. In the midst of the crisis, when any number of things were going wrong, the utility put out a news release claiming that the plant was “cooling according to design.” Months later I asked the PR director how he could justify such a statement. He explained that nuclear power plants are designed to cool even when serious mistakes have been made. Despite his company’s mistakes, therefore, the plant was indeed cooling according to design.

Needless to say, his argument that he hadn’t actually lied did not keep his misleading statement from irreparably damaging the company’s credibility. But I could hear the pride in his voice. He had done what he considered good public relations. He had given a false impression without saying anything untrue.

If you’re imagining that your organization doesn’t do this, I want to suggest—as strongly as I can—that you’re wrong. Most of my clients (corporate, government, and activist) believe that their opponents flat-out lie, when in actuality their opponents mostly tell misleading half-truths instead. They believe their own organizations tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, when in actuality they also tell a lot of misleading half-truths.

Why this consistent perceptual distortion? We all tend to make a distinction between facts with a lower-case f and Truth with a Capital T. Your opponents distort the facts, or choose which facts to communicate and which to skip, in order to lure people away from the Truth (as you see it). That’s misleading. Your side, on the other hand, distorts the facts or chooses which ones to leave out in order to help people understand the Truth (as you see it). That’s not misleading; it’s leading. You may be distorting a few facts, but you’re not really distorting the Truth. You’re clarifying it.

Of course your opponents have the same analysis, grounded in their version of the Truth. You’ve got to know which side you’re on to tell the difference.

Misleading toward a false conclusion seems very different from what I have sometimes called “misleading toward the truth.” There is of course a genuine ethical distinction between knowingly pointing people in the wrong direction and merely choosing your words carefully in order to point them in the right direction. The problem is that opinions differ on which is the right direction. Each side believes it is misleading toward the truth. Each side gives itself absolution for its benign distortions and condemns its opponents for their evil distortions. And each side quickly forgets that misleading toward the truth isn’t the same as telling the truth.

I have spent more than 30 years consulting for activist groups, government agencies, and corporations enmeshed in risk controversies. I have not found any ethical differences among these client groups. Lying is rare on all sides. Distortion is common on all sides. Each side sees its own distortions as essentially accurate, as benign efforts to simplify the situation and help the public understand the underlying truth. And each side sees the other side’s distortions as lies.

4. In risk controversies, alarming half-truths tend to be more acceptable to the public than reassuring half-truths. That part isn’t symmetrical.

There is symmetry in the behavior of the organizations trying to arouse outrage and the organizations trying to reduce it: Neither side lies much, but both sides distort a lot. What isn’t symmetrical is the public’s reaction to this behavior. Ask people if activists and journalists are likely to exaggerate how dangerous some situation is, and they’ll say sure; ask them if they mind, and they’ll say not really. Now ask them if corporations tend to exaggerate how safe the situation is, and they’ll say sure again; ask them if they mind, and they’ll say: “Yes! Somebody should make them admit the truth!”

Yes, I know, that’s not fair. I apologize on behalf of the universe for its asymmetry. But it’s just the way things are. Activists and journalists are allowed to exaggerate when seeking to rile people up. Companies are not allowed to exaggerate when seeking to calm people down.

I don’t want to overstate this point. Though exaggerated warnings do less reputational damage than exaggerated reassurances, they are not cost-free. They do chip away at the credibility of the source.
Government officials, in particular, worry a lot about the boy-who-cried-wolf problem (they call it “warning fatigue”)—the concern that if they keep alerting the public to risks that never seem to materialize, eventually the public may stop listening.

Warning fatigue is real, but it’s surprisingly weak. People who heeded a hurricane evacuation order that turned out unnecessary mostly heed the next one anyway. It helps a lot to concede your uncertainty. Exaggerating how sure you are about a warning seems to undermine trust more than exaggerating how awful the thing you’re warning about might get.

And exaggerated warnings hurt the credibility of public officials more than they hurt the credibility of journalists and activists. We expect (or at least want) public officials to be objective arbiters of the truth. But we know perfectly well that investigative reporters and activists stand for one side—and it’s the side we want them to stand for.

The biggest activist groups do periodic polls and focus groups to monitor whether they are sounding too shrill or too mild, and adjust their rhetoric to match. Each group has its own market niche; what’s too shrill for the National Wildlife Federation may be just right for Greenpeace. But most groups—not just environmental groups, but activist groups on all issues—have learned that a certain amount of alarmism attracts more contributions, more members, and more media coverage than measured calm. And they have learned that the price of exaggerating and then turning out wrong isn’t usually all that high.

For those on the reassuring side of a controversy, on the other hand, the price of exaggerating and then turning out wrong is very high indeed.

Exaggeration (that is, distortion) is a dangerous but useful tool in the hands of those who wish to arouse outrage. It belongs in the toolkit of the outrage industries. Even so, the outrage industries have good reasons not to overuse it—ethical reasons, certainly, and long-term reputational reasons as well. I do not personally recommend misleading toward the truth to any of my clients, not even the ones on the outrage-amplifying side of the fence.

But I can’t in all conscience tell crusading journalists and activists that misleading toward the truth is bound to backfire. For them it usually works. When it is used by those trying to reduce outrage, on the other hand, it is bound to backfire. It doesn’t belong in their toolkit at all.

If you lust for the pleasures of exaggeration, go be an investigative reporter or an activist. (And even then, try not to make a habit of it.)

Risk professionals should recognize this asymmetry as their old friend conservativeness. Erring on the side of caution is good risk management (and good risk communication). If a smoke alarm goes off when there isn’t any fire, that’s an irritation; if there’s a fire and the smoke alarm doesn’t go off, that’s a catastrophe. So we calibrate smoke alarms to go off too often rather than too seldom. We similarly calibrate journalists and activists to sound the alarm when they think they might smell smoke; we don’t want them to wait till they’re sure. But companies need to be pretty damn certain before they try to shut off the alarm.

The absence of symmetry here enrages corporate managers, but it is a fact of life, and perhaps even a justifiable one. Companies have real power, and a lot is at stake if you misuse it. So we want you to be very careful with the data and very respectful of your opponents. Journalists and activists, on the other hand, can exaggerate and bluster with our tolerance, sometimes even our approval. Our ethical standards for Goliath are stricter than our standards for David. I know you think you’re David; I’ve never had a client that thought it was more powerful than its opponents. But the public thinks you’re Goliath, and puts its thumb on the scales to balance things a little.

One of my key recommendations to companies trying to reduce people’s outrage is to “stake out the middle”—that is, to figure out which of their critics’ arguments have some validity, and incorporate those arguments into their own communications. Make your own valid arguments too, of course, but concede the solid points in your critics’ case.

The goal is to leave your critics nothing bad to say about you except points that you’ve already acknowledged and points that are just plain false. This isn’t an ethical precept. It’s a strategy. It is simply what works best for those on the reassuring side of a risk controversy.

It is not necessarily what works best for those on the alarming side of the controversy. Being super-scrupulous about acknowledging the company’s valid arguments isn’t usually the best strategy for activists and crusading reporters. They would still be wise to concede your very best points — the ones the public is already finding persuasive, the ones they cannot deny or ignore without losing credibility. But they do best with an overall posture that borders on intransigence. You do best with a posture that’s far more conciliatory.

A well-fought risk controversy, in short, is a battle between one edge and the middle. If the activists can seduce your company into occupying the opposite edge, so the battle becomes a choice between two extreme positions, the scary extreme (the activists’ extreme) is bound to win the day. If the company can seduce the activists into joining them in the middle ground, so the battle becomes a choice between almost indistinguishable moderate positions, the company is just about home free. If both sides know their business, the activists will stay on the extreme where they belong, and the company will stay in the middle where it belongs.

5. Everyone has mixed motives. That’s symmetrical too.

What motivates the outrage industries? The same motives that influence corporations — though not necessarily in the same proportions. I want to focus here on two key motives, greed and ideology.

Greed. Call it “self-interest” if you must, but readers who know what I charge know that I have nothing against greed.

And readers who work for corporations presumably have nothing against greed either. The corporate version of greed is, of course, profitability. The word is off-putting to non-capitalists, so companies sometimes use a euphemism like “return on investment” instead; even that sounds a bit crass, so it’s usually abbreviated ROI. Whatever it’s called, earning a profit for shareholders is the corporation’s raison d’être, its moral imperative. However obliged they may feel to gussy it up with euphemisms, greed is (and should be) the chief motive of the people who run companies.

Greed is a powerful motive for journalists and activists too — though not usually as powerful as it is for companies. Editors want to sell papers or build ratings; reporters want to win prizes and earn promotions; activists want to attract new members and contributors.

It surprises me how often my corporate clients express contempt for the greed of journalists and activists—as if they had somehow forgotten that they like greed. Of course journalists and activists set themselves up for this contempt by pretending that they are motivated exclusively by “purer” goals than mere self-interest. Still, when you detect greed underlying much of the behavior of the outrage industries, try to respond as if you’d found a common bond, a shared value—not a dirty secret.

Ideology. Ideology is the anti-greed. You may not think much of the specific ideologies espoused by the journalists and activists attacking your company. But however wrongheaded you may think these ideologies are, they are not selfish. I realize that greed can itself be an ideology; I have read Ayn Rand and I believe in capitalism (though not Rand’s objectivism). Still, when we say someone is an ideologue we usually mean that he or she is putting deeply felt principles ahead of personal gain. Ideologues unselfishly pursue their own vision of what’s good for the world.

The fact that ideology is unselfish is important for understanding the battle between com

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