*Author’s note: This is a modified version of a presentation I gave last month at Blunt Talks in Los Angeles. The purpose of that talk was to provide tips for those who want to get better at using media to market themselves and their brands, but in my opinion the bigger issue is understanding what and who you can and can not trust as truly objective content. If you’re interested in the original presentation I’ve included a link to the video at the bottom of this piece, but I believe this is more appropriate for a general audience, and not just marketers.*
The State of the Media
Over the past few decades the world has changed in immeasurable ways. From the ways we travel and the ways we communicate, to the means of that communication—few things are as they were in our parents generation. With the overtaking of all things digital, and as our phones have become more and more of a central part of our existence, there has been an exponential rise in the amount of content and messages we’re all consuming every moment of everyday. Personally I believe that’s why we all have ADD, but that’s a topic for another day. That said, perhaps one of the most significant advancements to our collective society has been those developments in media, and the ways in which we ingest, and trust, the information presented to us.
You see, back in the day the ways people received “trustworthy” information weren’t as… plentiful as they are today. Back then, there weren’t influencers like we have now who can share every crazy thought they have with their audience at any moment, often leading their fans to believe whatever it is they’re presenting is a good—or well-thought-out—idea. In many cases it’s already led us to extremism, and it’s led many of us to plain stupidity. We have talking heads now who tell you you can’t trust the mainstream media—the only channels actually required to always be truthful to the best of their ability—and that they are your only source of valid information. They attempt to brainwash, and suck their audience from reality and into their broken or malicious worldview, in an attempt to get you to do the things that THEY want you to do, often sacrificing your own wellbeing in the pursuit of their efforts.
But the truth is, it’s not always that nefarious. In most cases, the messaging isn’t trying to mislead as much as they’re trying to get you to buy something, and that’s what I intend to cover today. There are plenty of signs pointing to a sale if you know where to look, and hopefully knowing more of these signs, and looking for them while you’re consuming content, will help you avoid some of the pitfalls, or just dumb products, that people are pushing on you.
Who Can You Trust?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. While High Times is certainly never mistaken for the mainstream media, you’ve been told for years now that the MSM is lying to you, slandering your idols, and generally misleading you. That there’s some concerted effort to keep the truth from you. I appreciate the sentiment that there’s some cabal controlling everything we’re seeing and doing and how simple that can make things seem—the idea that there are some magic overlords holding us down makes most of our situations seem that much more digestible, rather than something we ourselves must work to fix. That’s why it’s so attractive.
In reality, while there are certainly enormous corporations and interests that are vying for our attention, paying to mislead us, and striving to force us into whatever end result they’re hoping for—typically us buying their bullshit—the truth is, the foundation of journalism, and the media, is actually to combat those nefarious intentions, and to bring you the real story. However awful or heartbreaking it may be.
Let’s zoom out for a second. In case you don’t know the technicals, “the media” is defined as the main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing, and the internet) regarded collectively, according to Oxford. In the traditional sense, this meant newspapers, magazines, broadcast news, and their digital counterparts. Before the explosion of television, and the internet, newspapers were people’s main source for information. Eventually radio came along, and then TV, and now of course you all know where we’re at—everybody’s got their own personal talking head to trust— but before there were so many channels, newspapers dominated our collective attention, and became the way we learned about all the things we couldn’t see for ourselves.
Policing the Media
Now, it’s important to note here that journalism has always been a human-powered machine, so it’s not perfect. People will get things wrong, and corrections will have to be made, but at its core it’s a beautiful thing. Journalism is about documenting the world around you in an objective manner both for the human record, and to show everyone else the great and terrible things happening elsewhere in near real time. That— the real time aspect— is where a lot of the issues typically begin. You see, in the constant effort to get the story out, sometimes all the pieces just aren’t together yet. Occasionally information turns out to be wrong, or changes later. Because of this, traditional media is beholden to a set of standards created by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is there to ensure that the media isn’t lying, or misleading you. They’re the ones who ensure we post corrections when things are published incorrectly.
Flash forward today and we live in an on-demand society with countless channels, and new ones popping up everyday. YouTube claims over 500 hours of new video are uploaded to their platform every minute, and that’s just one of the popular platforms dominating attention today. Everyone expects everything instantly, and they trust the first take, as opposed to the most well researched. However, it’s important to remember that not all of those channels are beholden to the same set of standards as the media. For example, our right to freedom of speech says that we— even presidents—can say basically whatever we want on our personal social media channels, and as individuals’ personal reach grows, that voice becomes seemingly more authoritative, despite it often having no idea the minutiae of the things it’s actually commenting on. There is little the FCC can do about this besides suing people, but the media—as it always has—has had to be the ones to call out some of these crazier claims these talking heads have been making. This is where “the MSM is lying to you!” claims start to come in, but we’ll come back to this.
It’s important to note the speed at which this change is occurring as well. The first documented handwritten and circulated news sheets existed in Venice as early as 1566. The first actual newspapers were printed in Germany in the early 1600’s. This was the way people got new information (besides books of course) for almost 300 years, until Tesla invented the radio in 1893. Just over 30 years after that the television was invented, and by the 60’s they were in millions of homes. Finally, in the 80’s, the internet came online, and 10 years later it became available for public use. That was just 30 years ago – slightly shorter than my entire lifetime – and with this new technology, the world as we knew it entirely changed. Today it rules our lives, and platforms where people lip sync and dance have contributed to deteriorating our collective intelligence, but that’s a derailment for another time. The point is things have changed at an unprecedented rate, and it seems many have lost their sense of what’s good information, and what’s not.
How the Media Makes Money
Now that you understand what the purpose of the media is, it’s time to understand how they make money. While yes, most of us receive subscriber fees, every large institution is primarily subsidized by running advertisements for brands who want to reach their respective audiences. The checks are just way bigger. In newspapers or magazines traditionally these were full pages brightly colored with attractive imagery that tried to sell you whatever product or service they were offering. On TV and on the internet these are the commercial breaks between programming, and the images on the sidebar and in the text breaks that you can see on this very page. Ads are often inspirational—the good ones will make you feel something, and typically whatever said product they’re advertising will supposedly deliver that feeling, or a cure for it. It doesn’t have to be exactly honest, it’s often selling you a dream, but that’s a bit more accepted in marketing as advertisers are beholden to a different federal commission, the FTC. They are the guys who make sure advertisers aren’t going too crazy, or making claims like something will cure your blindness or cancer. We’ll get more into that in a second.
But the point here is, the money from advertising supports the creation of all of the content you’re viewing, and it’s been an accepted trade-off for most of history that viewers would at least glance at whatever was on offer while consuming what they were really coming for. But with the rise of all these new channels, the means of advertising changed. Things went from clear sales pitches to a less obvious, more subtle means of getting you to buy their wares: getting the people you follow and respect to talk about them.
You see, very rarely is the traditional media going to tell you to buy something. Even when they’re talking about products, the goal is to be specific about what they offer without really making a sales pitch. They may tell you the price, and where you can buy it, but they won’t tell you that you should. This doesn’t work the same way with influencers.
In the early days, brands would hire spokespeople. When you’d see someone like Shaq in an advertisement on TV, you knew he was being paid to co-sign whatever it was he was holding in the commercial. But online that’s not so clear. Sometimes the influencers have a stake in the product they’re pushing, and sometimes they’re just being paid to, but they’re almost never raving about a product they have nothing to do with for the fun of it. They’re doing a job— subsidizing their livelihood.
Policing the Ads
After a while things started getting a little crazy with influencers. Many were clearly selling products to their audiences and making wild claims while not disclosing the compensation they were receiving from said brands and products, and the FTC had to step in. You may have noticed an increase in the #ad tag on social posts, or the branded content tools that have been added by the platforms. This isn’t just for fun—it’s because it’s an FTC requirement to disclose those kinds of relationships. There are all sorts of laws against subliminal advertising that I won’t get into here, but it’s safe to say that marketers have tried to get slick with their ads since the inception of advertising, so whether or not you realize it, there are standards you’re required to uphold while operating in certain businesses—and just because you’re an influencer, it doesn’t mean you’re not an advertiser too. In fact, it almost guarantees it.
That said, while it’s true that many influencers still aren’t following these guidelines, it’s often a lot harder for them to be seen than it is for major media outlets. You’re a lot more likely to be sued for screwing up as traditional media than you are as an influencer. This is a foundational point of why the media is inherently more trustworthy, but it’s of course not a guarantee. As I said earlier, it’s a human machine, and humans make mistakes, but when there’s a group of humans working together, rather than an individual, there are typically less that fall through the cracks.
It’s also worth noting that some of those slick techniques advertisers have come up with have also included new formats for ads within the media as well. Sponsored content—also known as branded content—can appear in publications and be designed to look like traditional content from that publication. Today this is an accepted ad format, and it’s one that even we sell to our clients—but per FTC guidelines anytime we run an ad like this it is explicitly stated. On High Times you will see a Sponsored tag at the top of the post, and in place of an author’s name. I know everytime we post about Delta 8 or Hemp CBD people get all up in arms like “How could High Times write this?”, but just like all the other advertising, we most likely didn’t, and it’s how we support bringing you all the news that you’re coming here to read. In fact, if people are advertising in this way it’s typically because they’re not able to generate earned media—what we call it when the media talks about your product on merit alone—on their own so they use this to make it seem like they’ve received a co-sign from an institution you trust. It is imperative to remember to look for those tags before you consume something as objective media.
It’s also important here to identify the difference between making a living writing and making a living selling things. Plenty of people get by writing lists for publications of new and hot products that are coming out, and my own Cop List is composed of the products that I’m personally consuming, and enjoying for whatever reason. The reason it says “Jon’s” before “Stone-Cold Cop List” is because it’s my personal take, not a take from High Times, even though they’re the ones who publish it. Now, I can tell you honestly I have never received a dime for any inclusion in anything I’ve ever written here— in fact, I’m not even actually paid to write for High Times, I do it because I love it—but that’s not the case for most writers. Writing is a job. We work incredibly hard behind the scenes to ensure that all of our writers, whether they be full-time or a freelancer, are upholding those same editorial standards that foundationally make journalism great, and it’s the reason we champion the writers we do. If we know you’ve been paid by a brand in the past, you can’t write about them again—your objectivity may be slanted by the relationship. But like all media, we do have sponsors, and we will run ads, as that’s what allows us to bring you all that we do.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
We’re living in a time of explosive growth, and that growth is affecting every aspect of our lives. The rules of engagement across virtually every medium are changing by the day, and there are more rabbit holes than ever to get sucked down into and feel seen by some talking head with a similar worldview. I’m not telling you you can’t trust influencers, and I’m not pretending you’ll never read something in the media that requires a correction, but I am telling you that it’s more important than ever to validate the information you’re consuming as truth, and not just trust the crazy take you read online that clarifies some insane belief. It’s been absolutely wild to watch some of the conspiracy theories that have taken hold over the past few years, but it’s legitimately scary how many of us are falling for quickly disprovable theories. That is what I worry about—not you getting sold some tummy tuck tea that doesn’t really work.
It’s also important to note that in the media when things are wrong you’ll actually get that correction, whereas on social most times you just won’t be able to find the post again, as the creator likely deleted it once they realized. The media doesn’t have that luxury—we can and will be sued for mistakes. It’s a lot harder to get an influencer for slander. Look at the whole Elon “Pedo Guy” incident. It’s true that the drama is always more engaging than the correction, but that’s a flaw with humanity more so than the information—we all love to watch a trainwreck, but few stick around to help pick up the pieces, so this idea that there’s some concerted effort to mislead you—that the mainstream media is willfully sending you down the wrong path, or trying to hurt you or your livelihood, it’s just not true. Sure we all have bosses, and there will be things that certain publications won’t cover. For example, I do my best not to shine a negative light on the cannabis industry despite its many issues, but in today’s world, with all the platforms and avenues available to consume real, factual and verified information, the truth is always out there, and it’s not usually far out of reach.
And remember, you don’t have to just trust the first take you see. You don’t believe me? Fine, read someone elses’ take. Just know, it’s not enough to just consume and believe anymore. You have to verify.
*If you made it through this and you’re still curious about the tips I provided at the Blunt Talks presentation to stand out to the media, check out the video here. The tips are the last ⅓ of the presentation.*