A long, long time ago, I aspired to become a journalist – I worked on the student newspaper at the University of Wyoming, The Branding Iron, and I harbored dreams of becoming a well known and well respected journalist in Wyoming.
Something funny happened on the way to fulfilling that dream and I ended up working in Berlin and I no longer aspire to being a journalist. The closest I get now is to have journalist-friends (2 that I can think of, off the top of my head), and friends who were, once upon a time, once journalists.
Oh yes, and this blog.
So while I no longer aspire to be a journalist, I still care a lot about the profession and its products. I admire and respect the journalists who work for top-notch organizations like The Economist, The Guardian, and The New York Times.
These organizations, like me, recognize that in the process of gathering news, mistakes will happen and, consequently, these organizations have mechanisms and tools to correct mistakes and look for systemic errors. When mistakes are found, they are corrected. When it turns out they have a lying, fabricating, plagiarizing journalist amongst them, they chase them out and expose the problem to light (see, for example, Jason Blair).
It’s how these organizations deal with factual errors and systemic problems that gives me a great deal of confidence in the truthfulness and accuracy in what I read in said publications.
Which brings me to News Corporation, the company owned, in part, by Rupert Murdoch.
It seems that there are systemic problems with accurately reporting news at News Corporation properties – and, even worse, ethical problems.
Going back, for a moment, to Wyoming, one of the great ethical challenges facing journalists in small towns is that tricky balance between reporting the facts and becoming involved. This is an issue because, often, the reporter sitting in the front row is the only person present who has been present for multiple meetings – and so when a city council is unsure of what has happened in the past, their instinct is to turn to the journalist and ask them what happened in the past.
In a large city, this wouldn’t be likely to happen – the city council would turn to an administrative aid who would do some research and report back, but in a small town, the fastest, most efficient, and highly accurate source of information is that journalist.
I remember listening to a debate (and I wish I could remember the details of when and where, but I suspect it was a panel discussion at a Wyoming Press Association convention in Casper, but it could have been a panel discussion on campus at UW) where a publisher was talking about how he didn’t have a problem with his reporter answering questions from the city council about what had happened in the past, but that he had to draw the line when the city council invited the reporter to join the, off-the-record the city council weekend retreat.
These are the kind of ethical challenges that I would expect to hear from journalists: how should a well-respected, long-standing, reporter in the community participate in local governance. It’s a serious problem and the answers are murky.
As opposed, for example, to the question of whether or not somebody’s voicemail should be hacked.
To me, there is no ethical question for a journalist about whether or not somebody’s voicemail should be hacked or not: it shouldn’t and any “journalist” who does it, or knows about it and doesn’t object (e.g. condones it), should be fired, terminated, and shamed by his or her own news organization. All the evidence should be gathered up and handed over to prosecutors so that said journalist(s) can be prosecuted and tried in court, thus ensure that their lengthy term in prison has been awarded with appropriate legal due process.
Furthermore any editor who condones it, any publisher who condones it, and any higher-level management, or media owner who lets it happen and doesn’t lift a finger to stop it, should also be tossed in jail.
To me there really isn’t an ethical question here: what is ethically right is about as clear as can be.
Which is why I hate News of the World – and I find the mere notion that it is credibly presented in the news that the News of the World is responsible for hacking into the voice mail of Milly Dowler and deleting messages while the girl was missing and before her body was found. As the New York Times puts it, this wantonly idiotic and unethical behavior seemed to result in confusing “investigators and gave false hope to Milly’s relatives, who believed [the deleted voicemail messages] showed she was still alive and deleting the messages herself….”
How. Incredibly. Sleezy.
And, I fear, not that surprising. This is, of course, the company responsible for Fox News, an organization whose viewers are the most consistently misinformed media consumers in the United States market.