Principled Profit: The Good Business Blog

Musings on the world-wide movement for ethical business, frugal marketing, and how honesty, integrity, and quality combine with deep relationship building to create business success. By the originator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign and award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and five other books

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Why Journalists Have Forgotten How to Report News

Judith Trotsky wrote:
For examples, I would urge you to tune in on the PBS Newshour. They have top figures from all over the world giving facts, providing their own points of view. This is reporting BOTH sides of any controversial story: you might not like what you hear, it might contradict some emotional need you have to believe differently, but it will present the ENTIRE story, not just one side.
I was also trained as a journalist, and I'm sure there are many dedicated folks in the profession who see this as their mission. I have no doubt that Judith is one of them. In fact, I'll point out that she was on the pub-forum list (where all three of the quotes originally appeared, along with a slightly different version of this response) for many months before I, at least--and I think of myself as pretty tuned in to clues on this--had any inkling of her politics, other than as a strong and forceful advocate for writers' rights and an active NWU member.

But unfortunately...

  • I don't think journalism training is what it was in the 70s when I was trained, and certainly not in the earlier period when Judith learned her trade; today, the emphasis seems to be on glitz instead of news, and the tendency to spent absurd amounts of time following nonstories involving celebs while the real news is quietly sitting there on bloggers' desks is just shameful
  • This is in part because real news is expensive, and many news orgs are now owned by non-journo bean counters who see their only stakeholder as the stockholder, and not the public they're supposed to serve
  • It's also because the Internet has even shorter lead time than daily newspaper of old--instant stories are not always fully researched
  • The definition of what covering both sides means has become quicksand: far too many journalists think that if they give equal time to a Democrat and Republican who share a position (say, just for the sake of argument, the drive to go to war in Iraq)...or spokespeople from both the oil and coal industries, but not a knowledgeable advocate of solar
    Many stories have far more than two sides; the mainstream, well-funded, easy access sources of the large industries and government institutions get heard, because reporters (who are totally overworked and under immense pressure) already have them in their Rolodexes and databases, and know they won't get in trouble for going with known quantity (especially on TV
  • You will notice that certain organizations, and many members of the current administration, clearly favor those journalists who promote their policies--look how seldom a Helen Thomas or a Don Gonyea gets called on at those rare White House press conferences (I'm sure the notorious planted Jeff Gannon didn't have this problem for his softball questions)--it is well-known in Washington that those journos who "play nice" also have access in the form of 1:1 interviews that are denied to the critical voices
  • Quite a few journos have simply been forced out for speaking truth to power--even such respected figures as Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue, and many lesser known ones who happened to work for the likes of Clear Channel and Sinclair

    Judy Sulik wrote:
  • Also, sometimes a story shouldn't have 'two' sides. If one side is
    correct and the other side is factually wrong, then giving balance to
    both sides so some kind of objectivity can be claimed, doesn't lead to
    the truth.
    I totally agree; there's not enough skeptical analysis. Propaganda statements on all sides are far too often simply presented as fact. And most people would be shocked and horrified to learn how much of the news is planted rather than investigated

    And Bob Goodman wrote,

    [a journalist who was covering the Vietnam war] was given the boot because he kept asking why only deaths that occurred during actual combat were reported as casualties of war--why people killed by a rocket launched into their barracks, for example, didn't count. That's a reasonable question that deserves an answer instead of a plane ride home. I'll give the army and the State Department credit, though. They let him come home.
    Does anyone really believe the spin and propaganda? Now we learn that puff pieces are being planted at taxpayer expense and sycophants in the media are presenting them as news. That doesn't do much for the already miniscule credibility of the news desk.
    I do see some clear ethical differences between PR for companies (which I do) and PR for governments. First of all, when a company hires PR firms or in-house staff, it is funded out of the company's profits. But for the government, the person paying is the taxpayer--the same person being hoodwinked by misleading, feel-good "news." Also, one can at least hope that the private folks subscribe to the PRSA's code of ethics, which very clearly spells out responsibilities to the truth. And finally, private PR flaks do not have the luxury of ostracizing media people who don't toe the preferred line.

    Of course government, business, and even Pub-forum wonks give you the information they want you to know. So do reporters. The difference is that reporters have to dig while government only dispenses. The more sophisticated we get technologically, the easier it is for people who are already secretive to pull "facts" that only they could know out of blackboxes that only they have access to and say that this is all theinformation we need and all we are going to get. Didn't the USSR and Pravda do that?

    This battle comes up every now and then. I highly recommend the new movie, "Good Night and Good Luck," which chronicles legendary TV reporter Edward R. Murrow's and producer Fred Friendly's battle against the repressive Senator Joe McCarthy. We desperately need more Ed Murrows in the journalism biz, especially the TV side of things--and they need to be given the resources to do their job, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were during Watergate.

    (My thanks to Judith, Judy, and Bob for their gracious permission to quote them, and to Pub-Forum for its usual stimulating discussion.)

    Shel Horowitz is the creator of the Business Ethics Pledge, which you can sign by clicking here. He writes frequently on media, ethics, and government. His most recent book is the Apex Award winner, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First


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