In Praise of Looking Foolish: Lessons from WTOL-TV’S ‘School Day’ Video

“LMAO!”
“ROLF!”
“Epic Fail!”

The mockery mounted on social media as a video spread virally showing newscasters from Toledo TV station WTOL in what the majority of users found to be a painful effort to sound ‘high school cool.’

The video racked up millions of views, and seemed especially popular to share within the community of local broadcast newsrooms. Reactions mostly fell in a narrow range between “FAIL!” and “How foolish!” [Confession: I first saw it in an internal SLACK channel, and had the same knee-jerk reaction.]

In the threads I noticed an undercurrent of odd glee bordering on schadenfreude among local TV news folks no doubt relieved that — when it comes to embarrassing oneself on TV — “better them than us!”

An obvious teachable moment emerged when the station published the back story behind the video. Area schools facing poor student test performance results and participation had reached out to local media for help. “When we heard what was on the line, we felt like we had to do something different to connect with these kids,” WTOL Morning Anchor Melissa Andrews explained in the follow-up article. “This was an effort to reach kids where they are — on social media and to give them a laugh at our expense.” The video was made for the school and for social, not produced for broadcast. Props to the team at WTOL who responded to a request for help from local schools by daring to try a nontraditional approach.

In the digital marketplace where video can be shared and spiral virally in minutes, it was a great reminder for all of us. Context is king, and the story is quite different once you know it was done as a community service effort in support of local schools, and not made for broadcast. As journalists, we’d hope we would be more careful about jumping to conclusions before sharing.

I’d argue there’s another lesson here for journalists. We need to be more willing to look foolish.

Think about the core values of journalism. “Getting it right” is at the foundation of our mission. We strive for the human impossibility of being error-free. The accumulated cultural habit in our newsrooms is about “zero defects” – no errors. And, culturally, we sanction our own harshly when we do err. Corrections are not just painful, or embarrassing; for many journalists, they are humiliating. We shame ourselves and other journalists who err. This cultural habit serves us well in our mission to be trusted, reliable sources for the truth in the communities we serve.

This strength contains a corresponding weakness, perhaps revealed in the overly enthusiastic pummeling of WTOL’s video: The cultural bias toward perfection is a real blocker to risk-taking. And experimentation is essential to innovation.

Compare this baked-in cultural habit around risk-taking in journalism with the baked-in habits of tech and platform companies around risk. Over the past five years, through my role managing media strategic partnerships (previously with TEGNA and now as part of the ASU Cronkite newsroom) with both startups and large platform companies, I’ve witnessed their cultural bias to action. These tech companies institutionalize intentional experimentation that’s core to the culture. They value and encourage “smart failures” that generate learnings, which they recognize lead to faster iteration and ultimately innovation.

To be sure, these cultural habits have their own risks. For example, Facebook has experienced first-hand the fallout from pursuing a “move fast and break things” approach that doesn’t contain rigorous review of unintended consequences.

Somewhere in between is the happy medium, balancing smart and purposeful risk-taking with responsible review.

I’ve kept this Teddy Roosevelt quote on my desk for many years, because it reminds me that it is easier to critique what others do than to be the one to take action, because action involves not just possible success but also possible failure and even mockery.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

As news leaders, we must be aware of our culture of perfection. We should maintain our commitment to ‘getting it right’ on matters of fact. But there’s so much we do in newsrooms beyond reporting facts where our culture might unduly limit experimentation.

So here’s to the news team at WTOL. Here’s to the doers and to the strivers. Here’s to the news innovators for being willing to sometimes look foolish. Transforming local news will require it.