We've Found the 1 Thing Elon Musk Doesn't Understand: How News Works

So here are five rules to set him straight.
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A Telsa Model S, destroyed by a fire (Reuters)

Arguably the brightest innovator alive, Elon Musk took to Twitter a couple of days ago to ask the world a question:

"Why does a Tesla fire w no injury get more media headlines than 100,000 gas car fires that kill 100s of people per year?"

Good question. Why do the "unjust" headlines so misrepresent the facts?

Saying he feels "pistol-whipped" by the recent coverage, Musk joins a long tradition of accomplished CEOs who bristle about the "illogical" behavior of the news media. Those bristlers have usually mastered the specific logic of their own field—say, business, law or science—and have unconsciously come to believe that the logic of their field can and should be applied universally. Often faced with public criticism for the first time in their careers, they tend to reject news logic as irrational, and view the negative reports as "unjust" personal mistreatment.  Some spend their entire careers fighting against the laws of news, while others eventually learn to use those laws to their own advantage.  

So, what are the laws of news logic that explain why a Tesla fire does indeed get more headlines? Here are the top five.

1.  News must be new.  Musk points out that fires occur in gasoline-powered cars far more frequently… which is exactly why those incidents seldom makes news.  But when a still-rare, highly expensive electric car goes up in flames, that's something new.

2.  News must disrupt.  The most attractive news stories disrupt the existing narrative by delivering a new plot point.  Until the third Tesla fire, the Musk/Tesla narrative would be summarized as something like:

"With demand for his wonder-car outpacing supply, the Genius Innovator watches his stock climb faster than one of his own magic rockets."

The recent fire stories fed the news world's innate desire to disrupt any narrative that has become boring by remaining too pleasant for too long.

3.  News must have a conflict.  The more dramatic or violent the conflict, the better.  If the conflict can be dramatically visualized -- say, like with a video of a car engulfed in flames -- then it's virtually irresistible.

The fire stories inherently framed the conflict at two levels.  The high-level conflict is, "Can the Genius Innovator's unshackle humankind from petroleum dependence?"  The street-level conflict is, "Can you drive one of these things without risking your life?"

Conflict always trumps context, and Musk will never see a headline like, "Rarity of Tesla fire today demonstrates superior safety."

4.  News must be personal.  All good stories of any kind require characters, and news stories are always ultimately about people.  Famous people are particularly attractive, because they come pre-loaded with an established backstory that makes them more interesting characters.

In fact, mere fame itself can turn non-news into big news.  When most women have a baby, it might make the birth announcements in the local newspaper.  But when Kate Middleton has a baby, it's big news.

In the business world, nothing has sold more magazines than coverboy Steve Jobs. Chris Anderson’s just-released Fortune 2013 Business Person of the Year story seems to seek to transfer that power to Musk, explicitly confirming him as Jobs’ obvious successor as the coming era’s ruling wizard.  Musk should note that -- aside from the avalanche of hagiographic covers that accompanied Jobs' death -- many of the Jobs covers over the decades were framed either skeptically or negatively.

5.  News must affirm.  While news must disrupt the current story, it must also somehow affirm the deeper beliefs of society.

For instance, we love to see stories that confirm our belief that a creative, hard-working maverick can challenge conventions and achieve big breakthroughs.  But we also love to see stories that confirm our belief that unchastened hubris will ultimately lead to a fall.  Going forward, Musk will always find himself walking the thin line between those two belief-affirming stories.

As the steward of his shareholders' investments, Musk is right to resent "sensationalized" coverage.  But given that he will undoubtedly continue to face unusually heavy media scrutiny for the rest of his career, he also faces a big choice.  Will he continue to reject the laws of news logic by reacting as a victim, debating facts with obligatory haters and zapping George Clooney with snarky tweets?  Or will he play offense by driving a story that will make those news laws work for him, not against?

That choice will be determined by whether his considerable intellect either enables or prevents him from embracing news logic.

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Jack Flack’s observations on business spin are written by Paul Pendergrass, a communications consultant, speechwriter and career "flack."  He has been published in numerous sources, including DealBook.

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