Journalism codes leave vexing problems untouched

Since the 1920s journalists in the United States have been writing and rewriting codes of ethics. This began because they wanted the public and their own employers to regard them as worthy of respect (and decent pay), with rules, specialized expertise, and lofty purpose—genuine professionals, just like dentists and accountants. They also wanted guidelines that would keep them both honest and out of court.

There are quite a lot of codes around: The broadcasters have one; a good many news organizations, from tiny newspapers to major market TV stations, have their own; the Online News Association is even hosting a participatory hacking party to encourage members to draw up their own codes, “because one size does not fit all.”

Most recently, just after Labor Day the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) released a revision of its 1996 code, probably the most influential and most widely consulted among U.S. journalists.

Codes typically have many problems because they fill conflicting needs. The ones written by news outlets are often no more than employee manuals, and pronounce on confidential sources alongside overtime and severance. The deft touch of in-house lawyers is apparent, and the codes give management both deniability if reporters mess up and the moral license to nail them even if their misdeeds are more embarrassing than unethical.

But the bigger problem of codes is that they are so clearly overmatched by the swirl of ethical challenge that inundates contemporary journalism.

To be sure, right conduct can be encouraged by admonitions such as seek the truth, don’t plagiarize, correct errors, don’t shill, and treat people with respect.

But like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, those instructions constantly clash with each other and with real world pressures. Today’s journalists—and their employers—face challenges that are immensely more perplexing than those that these codes anticipate, let alone address. Take these hot-button issues the SPJ code does almost nothing to clarify:

– Clickbait: News organizations increasingly rely on web analytics that track, in real time, the traffic that particular postings draw, according to research by Angele Christin of the New School in New York. The result, Christin suggests, is the emergence of incentive structures that tilt reporters’ attention toward editorial confections with strong audience appeal but little news value. Isn’t this an ethical problem? Indeed, isn’t the way that editorial resources are used the quintessential ethical problem that journalism faces?

– Herding: Similarly, the ability to discern momentary trends in online chatter lures editorial resources toward offerings that will draw more of the mindshare of the minute and keep the news outlet “in the conversation,” as the trendy usage puts it. At what point does that constitute an abandonment of the discernment that was once called editorial judgment in favor of a continual state of market-chasing panic?

– Corporate complicity: News organizations now routinely incorporate social media into their newsgathering and online distribution operations. They crown Twitter users as trendsetters by recognizing tweets as newsworthy, they treat Google as a natural part of the utility landscape, they sell products in partnership with Amazon, and they build outreach strategies on Facebook. Yet those same vast networks are built on bare-knuckle competition, high-stakes lobbying, and problematic appropriation of user data. Isn’t this complicity a problem? Doesn’t Continue reading “Journalism codes leave vexing problems untouched”

Why news organizations need to credit each other

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of the Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, executive editor Martin Baron wrote to  Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism—among them disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities, and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism.  McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. (The Times later acknowledged its error.)

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize, or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting—generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Marty Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique, it’s the overall transparency of the news process—the way that significant information comes to light—and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You Continue reading “Why news organizations need to credit each other”

Maybe summoning the press before Parliament isn’t such a bad idea

Alan Rusbridger, editor of London’s Guardian, faced off with British legislators last week about his newspaper’s publishing secrets about official surveillance that were leaked by the fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden.

Press advocates weren’t pleased.

Carl Bernstein, the Watergate-era star who’s on the Mount Rushmore of 20th century media heroes, certainly wasn’t. In an open letter to Rusbridger, Bernstein objected to Parliament’s “hauling in journalists for questioning and trying to intimidate them,” and said the editor’s appearance before a House of Commons committee was “dangerously pernicious.”

Roy Greenslade, ex-editor of Britain’s Daily Mirror, wasn’t pleased either. “Why, I kept asking myself, was an editor being required to explain himself to MPs [Members of Parliament]?” Greenslade wrote. “What makes them think they have the right to do so?”

Me, I disagree. I was glad to hear Rusbridger answering questions. It’s not that I want politicians to bully the news media. And I don’t think journalists should be routinely summoned before legislators to explain their editorial choices.

Nor do I disagree with Carl Bernstein about the need to keep governmental secrecy, not newsroom policies, at the foreground of public debate, and to insist that it’s the duty of a free press to battle bureaucrats over control of information that has public significance.

But I was happy to see a reasonably honest confrontation between a brave and dedicated journalist and parliamentarians, especially when the interlocutors weren’t just showboating for cable news or social media, but seemed genuinely concerned that the journalists might have badly misunderstood the harm that publishing the Snowden materials might cause.

Like Rusbridger, I believe the legislators were wrong. But they asked pretty good questions. They wanted to know whether The Guardian and the organizations with which it cooperated—among them The Washington Post and New York Times—had handled the files with care, and they worried that the leaks might leak further even if the journalists didn’t mean to publish them.

And the lawmakers wanted to know how journalists decide which secrets should be disclosed, a question even press zealots like me agree is pivotal. Rusbridger responded about the skill and long experience of the reporters involved, and the steps they took to seek official input and withhold what might prove truly harmful.

Now, it’s important not to admire unduly the British approach to media controls, which can be heavy-handed and autocratic. But while U.S. political leaders pay lip service to the need for “a national conversation” about surveillance and state secrecy, their main response has been not to foster one, but to vilify and criminalize the whistleblowers like Snowden whose leaks put that conversation on the national agenda.

That’s hypocritical, in my view. But what about the position of our news media? Shouldn’t they be part of this supposed conversation? Apparently not. My guess is there’s not one U.S. journalist in a hundred who would suggest that the editor of The New York Times or Washington Post should submit to congressional questioning the way Rusbridger did.

But why not? Congress, as ridiculous as it can be, is still our supreme deliberative body. Our journalists, unlike Britain’s, operate within a strong tradition of constitutional and statutory protections—so it’s not as if they would face anything like the legislative perils The Guardian had to consider.

Moreover, what better place to weigh in and argue the case for a powerfully adversarial press that challenges dominant institutions and wrests from them the information—even when it’s classified—that the public needs to do its job, which is to run this country?

Continue reading “Maybe summoning the press before Parliament isn’t such a bad idea”

Hidden dangers of the Bush email hacking

Media throughout the country carried news recently that a half-dozen email accounts belonging to ex-President George W. Bush and several of his friends and relatives had been hacked.  The words and images that were pilfered weren’t all that interesting, so all in all it wasn’t a huge story.

But to me, a fan of the vanishing right to privacy, this was still a reasonably big deal. I was struck by the way the former president’s right to chat with intimates, free of eavesdroppers, was barely acknowledged. Comments he had made privately and paintings he had kept from public view were exposed worldwide as if the propriety of doing so was beyond question.

And I think that’s worth considering more carefully.

We’ll leave to the FBI and Secret Service the question of whether the hacking warrants legal reprisal. My interest is in what sort of respect Bush’s privacy deserves from the media that received the hacked materials.

The first report of the hacking came in a Feb. 7 posting on The Smoking Gun, a website owned by Time-Warner that tilts toward what was once called tabloid journalism (Among recent headlines: “Man stabbed as ménage a trois goes wrong,” or “Mom charged for letting son, 3, pump gasoline.”)

The Smoking Gun handled the material well, I thought, by foregrounding its invasiveness.  The hack “exposed personal photos and sensitive correspondence from members of the Bush family…” The site said it had obtained confidential material—including home addresses, cell phone numbers, email addresses for Bush family members—but didn’t republish any of it.

In fact, most of the media I saw seemed aware that this material was pretty personal.

But they then turned around and squeezed every bit of even marginally interesting detail from it: Family concern about the declining health of the Continue reading “Hidden dangers of the Bush email hacking”

The struggle over values in the online news world

Week of December 21, 2009 The toughest challenges facing the news business may have more to do with values than finances. There’s reason for optimism about its economic future. The appetite for fact-based reporting and topical commentary is keener than ever, and the number of people with the skill and desire to feed it is […]