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Publishing Front News March 2007 Column

March 2007 Column

 

Journalism and Ethics: New Challenges in a Wired Age

By Kathe Gogolewski

 

San Diego, CA

On December 25, 2006, I read a holiday testimonial by local newspaper magnate, David Copley, published on the front page of his paper, the San Diego Union Tribune. In it, he honored the less fortunate souls on our planet, those forced to suffer from the effects of poverty and war. Though not presented as part of this mix, he made passing reference to the Tribune and its dwindling circulation. His tribute to may well have sprung from a personal accounting and fortune tallying. Copely had announced in November that Copley Press Inc. would sell or merge the company’s Illinois and Ohio papers, saving only the San Diego flagship…and for how long, no one knows.

 

Indeed, closing doors appear to be a growing trend among newspapers in general. Consider the sale of the news bastion, Knight Ridder, with 32 daily papers, to McClatchy last Spring, who in turn sold off all 32 dailies to MediaNews Group and Avista Capital Partners. The latter operates oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. What’s drilling got to do with printing global and local news? The only thing they have in common is an interest in profit. What does this portend for readers and writers of their news? Will Avista Capital attempt to skew their reporting to support their own interests?

 

Some say that it’s just a matter of time before all newspaper giants follow suit. In the August 24,  2006, article in The Economist, “Who Killed the Newspaper,” the author states, “Over the next few decades half the rich world’s general newspapers may fold. Jobs are already disappearing.” According to the Newspaper Association of America, the number of people employed in the industry fell by 18% between 1990 and 2004. Add rising newsprint costs to lost circulation, and it’s easy to understand why they are floundering.

 

So why is circulation dwindling, and where are all those readers headed?  You probably already know the answer to that one if you are between the age of 18 and 34. Readers, especially young readers, have flocked online to get their news—news that is more current than anything a print newspaper can offer—and it’s free.

 

Indeed, it’s more than current— it’s often instantaneous. With blogging, IMing, handheld devices, and internet portals available, instant journalism from citizens-at-large can reach wired households in the blink of an eye. Anyone can now be in the right place at the right time and relay an event to the world over. However, not everyone is a professional writer or journalist, someone who thoughtfully composes his or her work and checks the facts for accuracy. As a result, many specious accounts are published, and it’s up to the reader to sort out the true from the false.

 

The layperson is just one source of online news. There has been an explosion of alternative news sources. However, for different reasons, they aren’t necessarily better. These include many traditional news organizations, who have moved online to chase lost advertising revenue. While operating online has fewer expenses (distribution and printing costs are eliminated), these news sources often lose their primary source of revenue: the paying reader. Suppliers of free news depend more heavily on advertising revenue for their profit. The same is true for many traditional print papers. In order to compete with their online counterparts, free print dailies are offered as well, and must use advertising as their primary revenue.

 

With advertisers driving the train, news can adopt an entirely different slant, which may affect a departure from unbiased reporting. Avista Capital, mentioned earlier, now has advertisers to please. Is a company that drills offshore oil for profit willing to separate that fine line of journalism from commerce? Or will they subject their readers to a blurring of that line in order to serve the needs of Avista advertisers?

 

Consider the example of the Palo Alto Daily News, sold to Knight Ridder and later to MediaNews. According to Michael Stoll in a July, 2005 article called At Free Dailies, Advertisers Sometimes Call the Shots, the Palo Alto Daily News has advertising sales people who write entertainment, restaurant and art reviews, “masquerading as journalists while plugging businesses.” He says the Daily News has a written policy encouraging journalists to write news articles and promote advertisers as if their businesses “were their own.”  This becomes obvious in some of their copy: “At the Dollar Warehouse, your 11th item is free with the purchase of 10 items all priced at $1 or less—even the Mylar balloons. Stop in and tell Sam you read about him in the Daily News.” This is pure advertising promotion, but nowhere on the page does it say so. However, on the website for the East Bay Daily News, it stated, at the time, that the column was “devoted to selling ads so we can make enough money to keep the people at corporate HQ happy.” Now, if that doesn’t say it all.

 

In addition, Stoll writes that another MediaNews paper, The San Francisco Examiner, accommodates advertisers by dropping “tens of thousands of copies in free boxes in

San Francisco and the Peninsula to the south. But tens of thousands of other papers go toward targeted free home delivery—intentionally sidestepping poorer neighborhoods, where a free newspaper is arguably most needed.” He continues, “The paper very carefully picks its readers based on who it feels can afford to buy products there.”

 

Stoll quotes Kelly McBride, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida (Poynter Online http://www.poynter.org), who said the combining of advertising and journalism createscompeting loyalties.” Even if there is no agenda to pay back advertisers or lure in new ones, you can’t serve the reader doing both jobs. If you are a journalist, “it’s the service to the reader you’re trying to provide—a fair and honest assessment of a business in a business column,” she states. “If the purpose is to generate ad revenue or reward good advertisers, then you’ve placed another value in front of serving the reader—the value of profit making—by virtually duping the reader.”

 

Whatever happened to the Code of Ethics outlined by the Society of Professional Journalism? In their preamble, it states “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.”

 

Where in this code does it say that unbiased facts should give way to the greater need of commercial interests? What about the first amendment, free speech and the responsibility to hold governments accountable? Will Avista do that for us? MediaNews? How much do they care about global warming? A distant war? Genocide in a far off country? Will we see free speech sacrificed to the highest bidder?

 

Professional journalists, writing for print and online sources, are not entirely to blame. According to an August 24, 2006 article written in The Economist, research into the tastes of mainstream newspaper readers has long shown that “people like short stories and news that is relevant to them: local reporting, sports, entertainment, weather and traffic. On the Internet especially…they are looking to enhance their way of life.” Political accounts, foreign affairs, and international news are low on the priority scale.

 

So who is watching Big Brother? Let’s return again to that citizen journalist, the one who sometimes can’t spell. In part, they guard the truth for the rest of us. In the article mentioned above, “Who Killed the Newspaper?” it states, “Several companies have been chastened by amateur postings—of flames erupting from Dell’s laptops or of cable-TV repairmen asleep on the sofa.” While some bloggers are capable of partiality and even lies, as a group, they offer a lot of information to digest. And a few bloggers, known for their accurate reporting, gain substantial readerships and clout.

 

In addition, we can still count on high quality journalism in sources such as The Christian Science Monitor and the Guardian, both owned and operated by non-profit organizations, to offer news free of commercialism. And writers, all writers, especially those who communicate ideas with clarity and accuracy, can add to the conversation through responsible blogs and ezines that hold those in positions of power accountable to the rest. It’s our turn now, as citizens of the free world, to write what we know, what we discover, and “serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.” The next step is to make the news as accessible as possible to as many as we can.

 

It’s our turn.

 

 

 Kathe