July 2011


Journalists, Journalism, and Ethics

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.

5 comments to Journalists, Journalism, and Ethics

  • Hear hear. When I read the subject line, I was wondering how you could put those words together like that – I think they’re usually magnetically repulsed by and from each other.
    You forgot to mention Hari at The Independent:

    • *ugh*

      I wonder if Rupert Murdoch will accidentally bring down the very government he wanted because of his sleaze. I don’t think that the closure of the News of the World is really closure — it’s a false-execution, especially if the Sun takes up its spot. I don’t think News Corporation will get the message until advertisers start deserting a major publication (see The Times) and their takeover of BSkyB is sent for a lengthy review, thus killing it.

  • ann

    We were watching Sky News while in Spain and it was wall to wall NotW coverage. A father of a 7/7 victim whose phone data had been hacked was interviewed. He said that if had been possible to make the experience of losing his son worse, this had done it. How anyone could fail to grasp that (and seriously, there was clearly nothing newsworthy to be obtained from that hacking – ethical or not). It boggles the mind.

  • This was a clear case of power getting into their heads. I think that there was no real merit in hacking the phone lines, they only did it because they could, maybe it was a slow news day with the politicos/celebrities, and who knows? Maybe some newsworthy tidbit would come up.

    It is inevitable that politics and journalism would cozy up to each other, that’s the reason why there are a lot of Journ grads/PR practitioners out there. If one is a practitioner in small towns/local news, my gut tells me that I could dig up my records (why was no one taking the minutes?) and make it available to them, since it is public record. However, any journalist worth his salt would draw the line at bribery. That’s what that situation with the weekend retreat boiled down to.

  • ann – About the only thing that cheers my heart in this whole mess is that Rupert Murdoch’s empire is being damaged whilst he is alive to witness it. At 80 years old, he could very well be dead–but he’s not. So far he’s lost out on buying all of BSkyB, had all three major parties in the UK unite against him, is subject to multiple UK investigations, and… now the FBI is doing a preliminary investigating to see if there was (attempted) hacking of 9/11 victim phones. Plus there is the possibility that bribing police officers in the UK by NotW violates US security laws… I hope that the intense pressure remains.

    Cathy- I think that in the small town case, there are minutes, but as council secretaries change, the memory in the secretary is relatively short and it would be complicated to search the minutes if you didn’t know where to begin. It’s probably easier today now that 10 to 20 years of minutes are probably on computers, but when I was listening to this discussion, word processing was still new and searching type-written minutes can be a time consuming process.