Inside the Media
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To order Winning with the News Media:
Below are excerpts from the Ethics chapter of
Winning with the News Media
By Clarence Jones
Do They Make Up the
When I mentioned journalistic ethics in a seminar, a middle-aged police chief interrupted. "Reporters have no ethics," he grumbled. "They’ll do whatever it takes to get a story. They have no conscience. They make up the rules as they go along."
Sometimes, I conceded, that’s true. Since the beginning of this nation, the media’s ethics have been in constant flux. Some of the ethic is written, some spoken. Some simply understood among editors and reporters. That’s what makes it seem so amorphous and strange to outsiders.
Who Regulates the Media?
The ethics for many professions are enforced through state or federal law, usually through regulatory bodies created by statute. Many people who deal with the news media believe there should be similar supervision of the news media.
But the First Amendment keeps popping up:
There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when the media did a lot to clean up their act. Part of it was the aftermath of Watergate. The media had turned the spotlight on public officials in a new, no-holds-barred way. Before Watergate, the media had often participated in a conspiracy of silence about certain kinds of things that went on behind the scenes in government; certain kinds of behavior among power people, politicians, and media people themselves. (See INSIDE THE MEDIA/Privacy)
If we’re going to hold politicians and public officials to a certain standard, the media reasoned, we’ll have to live by those same standards. People who live in glass houses, the old saying goes, shouldn’t throw stones. Journalists have traditionally been the stone-throwers in this society.
And for the first time, the media were willing to report on each other without pulling their punches. Another contributing factor for that was new, increased competition. Newspapers were especially eager to trash their new television competitors, whom they feared and despised. (See STRATEGY/Selling Your Story)
Ethics Erosion in the 90s
Unfortunately (in my opinion) a much sharper increase in competition in the 1990s has led to a massive erosion of media ethics and responsibility.
I blame that deterioration primarily on a shift in American media ownership. Television networks, many local TV stations, and about 80 percent of all daily American newspapers are now owned by large, distant corporations.
This is a major cultural shift for the United States. Until the 1970s, most American newspapers were locally owned, usually by a local family, and very provincial.
Unlike other industrial countries, the U.S. has very few national dailies sold all over the country. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are about the only ones. With weekday circulation of 2.2 million, USA Today is America’s largest daily. Japan’s largest daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, sells 14 million.
The Bottom-Line Mentality
The people with final power in the corporations that own today’s media rarely have experience as reporters or editors. They have no experience with journalistic ethics. They have a bottom-line mentality. Their primary allegiance is to their stockholders. They crave Wall Street’s blessing. If there is a conflict between responsible journalism and profit, profit usually wins.
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Newspapers’ Terminal Illness
The newspaper as we have known it cannot survive much longer. People will still want printed news, but they will have to print it themselves. Because they had been dominant so long, it took a long time for newspaper people to realize the new technology was taking over.
When they finally grasped what was happening in the mid-1990s, they went into survival panic mode. In the evolution of organisms and organizations, the will to survive is often much more powerful than the will to be responsible and ethical.
As the L.A. Times episode illustrated, corporate executives with no background in journalism often have a tin ear for ethical tunes. They simply do not understand what all the fuss is about.
Some cynics question whether the new ownership calls for another look at the First Amendment. The "press" is the only for-profit business granted unlimited Constitutional protection. The Founding Fathers could not have foreseen the media’s evolving financial structure.
When journalists break their own rules, there are things you can do about it, if you understand the traditional ethic, and the levers of power. I’ll try to explain some of those rules, and how you can wield power as a reader/viewer/listener/consumer.
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The Slide Into Sleaze
A timetable of stories that gradually led "respectable" media, both print and broadcast, into tabloid territory:
Rush to Judgment
The speed at which sensational coverage can destroy the target of a media feeding frenzy is accelerating geometrically.
In 1997, after an outbreak of food poisoning that received massive media coverage, the company that had supplied hamburger to Burger King was out of business in two weeks.
It took about 18 months for the Watergate investigation to reach the point where the news media were suggesting the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Within 48 hours after the Monica Lewinsky story broke in 1998, two major networks ran special reports strongly suggesting this story would result in Clinton’s impeachment or resignation.
The concepts of what ethical journalists should publish or broadcast, and how personally intrusive they should be, is constantly changing.
In addition to competition and profit, many of those changes are driven by the media’s relative immunity from lawsuits when they write about public figures.
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