Murdoch scandal offers cautionary tale for news media

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The problem on Fleet Street is bad press. Literally. Allegations of phone-hacking and bribery have painted the British press in a very negative light, prompting some in the U.S. news media to say such journalistic excesses couldn’t happen here.

“What’s acceptable (or at least tolerated) among reporters in Britain would be considered shocking here,” Paul Farhi of The Washington Post reported. That’s true. American journalism is pretty much felony-free. But the scandal surrounding News of the World and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire offers a cautionary tale well beyond Britain.

How it used to be

Shrinking audience share, circulation declines and a growing demand for breaking news, quick analysis, heated opinion and instant gratification have changed the way some in the U.S. news media operate. The rules of newsgathering were once pretty basic, and I’ll admit that as a young editor, I had some old-fashioned ideas. “Don’t publish a newspaper that clashes with breakfast,” I told news staffs in Wisconsin, Florida and New York during the ’80s and ’90s.

My point was that we counted on readers to be there 365 days a year, trusting us to come into their homes daily with a report that was accurate, timely and in touch with the community. It also meant resisting the temptation to sensationalize something for the sake of a single day’s sales. We were there for the long term.

That’s no longer the case. Today’s competitive media environment means that the news media can’t take audiences for granted and have to earn attention daily. It’s as though some in the press are saying, “If we’re not going to get you for the next 20 years, we’ll take the next 20 minutes.”

Time to revisit ethics code

Most news organizations have written ethics codes, and they’ve largely done a good job of adhering to them. But the shifting media marketplace is prompting some to engage in practices they would have shunned a decade ago. Every news organization in this country needs to blow the dust off its ethics code and ask these questions moving forward:

Do we pay for information? Bans on “checkbook journalism” — paying people for their stories — have long been in place, but increasingly TV networks are skirting the policy. ABC paid $200,000 to Casey Anthony, accused of killing her daughter, Caylee, for the use of family photos. CBS paid Caylee’s grandparents $20,000. A woman who received suggestive photos from Anthony Weiner received more than $10,000 from ABC in a deal that also led to an exclusive interview.

If we pay for information, what do we tell our audience? It’s a convenient dodge for news organizations to say they’re only licensing photos when they’re buying access to participants in news stories. Entering into a financial arrangement with the subject of a news story is an ugly practice; all the more reason to disclose it to the public.

Do we lie in pursuit of a story? And do we publish information based on the lies of others? Ian Murphy, editor of the website Buffalo Beast, secured an embarrassing interview with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by pretending to be conservative businessman David Koch. The Buffalo Beast isn’t a traditional news outlet, but the contents of the interview appeared everywhere.

Whom do we trust? When someone breaks a big story, is it enough that he reported it or do we need to have some independent confirmation or a particular faith in the source? Do we just trust The New York Times? How about TMZ? Or are we taking the position, “We have no idea if it’s true; we just need the Web traffic.”

Do we participate in politics or share our personal opinions? Keith Olbermann was briefly suspended by MSNBC for donating to political candidates. Juan Williams lost his role with NPR for sharing a personal observation on “The O’Reilly Factor.” At a time when blogging, tweeting and posting to social media might be our most vibrant forms of communication, are we going to require viewpoint celibacy from journalists?

For many journalists, these questions are easily answered. They don’t pay for interviews, misrepresent themselves, publish stories from questionable sources or make their politics public. But the reality is that competitive pressures will lead some to bend or abandon the old rules. For those who’d rather be first than right and are willing to compromise long-established ethical values, there’s just one more question to answer:

“Why should the public trust us?”

This article was first published in USA Today July 20.

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