The “Hostile Media Effect” – A Lesson in Group Dynamics


David Pogue, the New York Times columnist, writes in Scientific American this month about the “hostile media effect.” This is a cognitive phenomenon where people who hold strong opinions about something perceive that media coverage of that topic is prejudiced, no matter how neutral the coverage actually is.

The same phenomenon happens in groups. People who hold strong opinions about something perceive that anyone who asks questions is biased against them, regardless of how neutral or innocent the questions are.

I saw it in action this week during a meeting of the executive team of a health care company. Ten people gathered in a large conference room overlooking San Francisco to discuss the strategic issues faced by the organization. I asked each person to reflect on these questions: “How is the health care environment changing in California? What are the most important opportunities for the company? What should be our priorities over the next year?”

For the most part, the ensuring conversation was excellent. One team member talked about the “triple transformation:” the realignment of state government, health care reform, and the emergence of community care organizations. Another said she was worried about trends in work force development and the growing need for people with expertise in integrated care. Yet another talked about the importance of marketing services to public agencies.

Then Michelle spoke. She was vice president of marketing, new to the management team. She started by saying: “In my old job, this would be called channel management.” Eyes turned to her. “In a dynamic environment, we need to look at each customer segment and provide a unique value proposition.“

A team member asked: “Can you give us some specific examples?”

“You’re missing my point,” Michelle said. “We need to think more like a business.”

“In what ways?” said the team member.

“We need to be more business-like with our customers. We assume our customers will be there tomorrow, when that’s not necessarily true.”

There was an awkward silence. I could feel the tension ratcheting up in the room. “Which customers are you referring to?” she was asked.

“All of them,” Michelle said. “It should be obvious.” She stared defiantly at her inquisitor.

After the meeting, the CEO asked for my impressions. “I thought it was a good, productive discussion,” I replied. “With one exception.”

“Are you referring to Michelle?” he asked. “That was classic. There should be a name for what she did.”

“There already is,” I replied. “It’s called the hostile media effect. She’s highly opinionated and perceives innocent questions as hostile to her.”

“Is it curable?”

“Only in cases where you can get them to eat a large piece of humble pie!”

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