Monthly Archives: May 2008

What is More Ethical Blogs or News Media?

Rob Glenn asked:

We are hearing more and more that readers believe the information contained in Blogs is more reliable than the print news media. (I don’t think a direct comparison between the electronic media and Blogs makes much sense, so my comparison is direct: written material vs. written material.) While I find this shift in ‘believability’ to be somewhat surprising, I must admit that I don’t think I personally know anybody that reads the newspaper without a nagging suspicion and a bit of doubt. Even more, I continue to be amazed at the growing number of people I know that do not even bother to read the newspaper.

Well, how does this relate to the subject of ethics?

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a person who serves on a national group that investigates allegations of breach of conduct by the news media. As a professor of journalism, it was clear to me that he wants the profession to uphold the highest standards. When does a misquote become more than a minor issue? How about reporters that leave out details because they don’t understand them or don’t believe their readers could understand them? Or, editors that cut out segments of a reporter’s story and completely lose the intent? And, headline writers that mislead the readers by sensationalizing the story? Worse still, how about reporters who know that their information and their sources are tainted? Do these issues rise to the level of an ethical breach?

While I am very new to blogging (and admit some consternation about putting my thoughts into writing for the world to see), I am extremely fascinated that blogs offer the opportunity to say whatever you want — in your own words — without any opportunity for misquotes, editing, media bias, etc. This is what our First Amendment rights are all about. I know of one elected official that has launched a blog for the purpose of making sure his positions on issues are not taken out of context, twisted, turned — or, even, unreported — by the news media. This is a very interesting approach! If the media wants his input on an issue, he plans to post their question and his answer.

Perhaps the question remains: what does the print media need to do to regain the public trust and perform consistently in an ethical manner?

Like most complex issues, I believe trust and ethics are directly related to the quality of the individual and his or her commitment to excellence in their professional life. Thirty years ago, I was a corporate media spokesperson at a frighteningly young age. I took the time to get to know the reporters, rely on them for guidance, explain the subject in great detail; similarly, the reporters took the time to understand the issue and double-check facts and figures. Intriguingly, I was never misquoted. Never. Not once. I considered these individuals to be seasoned professionals, mentors, and true professionals. No, their reporting was not always to my liking, but the manner in which they performed their job was beyond reproach.

But, that was then and this is now. What has changed? Everything.

I will offer one perspective on the issue of blogs vs. newspapers. A blogger, like me, is taking the time to write about an issue that I want to write about and that I feel passionately about. Question: so, what about the subject of ethics? Answer: I do not have a deadline, I have no editor that is biased, and I even get to write my own headline!

If we were to agree (for the sake of argument) to remove any allegation of intentional breach of ethics by the media, I would say that today’s journalist does not have the same commitment to the profession as their predecessors. They seem to be in too big of a hurry, they don’t take the time to get all the facts and double-check them, they are not well-versed in what is going on in their community and therefore have no context, institutional knowledge, or historical perspective. They very quickly make a public impression of themselves as either a credible reporter — or, one that won’t be in that line of work much longer…

Poor reporting, just like anything else, becomes a behavior that the public ultimately recognizes — and then the public reacts accordingly. For example, if the editorial page editor is extremely liberal, the public picks up on that, and filters (and, maybe, even ignores), the columns written by that individual (or his or her editorial team). Likewise, if a news reporter consistently ‘gets it wrong’ the public will pick up on that as well and tend to discount (or at least question) whatever that reporter writes. Once the public trust is lost, the situation spins further out of control because sources of information to the reporter become less and less willing to waste time with them; and, reporters, not knowing anything about the story they are required to write by their editor (to be fair), continue to turn out a work product (in this case, a ‘story’) that would be considered inferior by the standards of any other industry.

In the end, just like with any other job or relationship, you can forever lose your ethics in just a brief moment of lapse in judgment. Weirdly, this critical issue does not seem to apply to reporters — or maybe reporters just think they can say whatever they want to say without consequence or accountability — but, in reality, they are ultimately personally responsible (although not liable) for conducting themselves in an ethical manner.

As for me, I think the opportunity to say what I want to say about whatever issue is of importance to me tends to indicate blogging is the best source of information available to the thoughtful individual, both today and in the foreseeable future.