McGuire on Media

Ethics and the business of journalism go together

When Chris Callahan, the dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State, hired me to be the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism obviously my portfolio was to be the business of Journalism.

 Almost immediately Chris and I realized that these days it was unwise and even foolish to pursue the business of journalism without relating it to the future of journalism. We were obviously in the middle of a morph to beat all morphs.

Then almost as an afterthought, Chris decided he wanted ethics to be part of my shtick too. He thought 30 years of wrestling with ethical dilemmas of all sorts gave me a battle-scarred credential in that area.

That marriage of ethics and the business of journalism has been fortuitous, even inspired. The digital age has transformed the media business and if we’re not careful it could lay waste to our ethics and values. If that happens the carnival barker, the news director and the editor will be indistinguishable and our advantages as public-service-driven media outlets could be lost.

I understand that we’re all supposed to be excited about the fact that there are not going to be any barriers of entry and everyone in the world is going to become a media producer. Me, I’m not so excited about that. Call me an old-fashioned foot dragger, but I think that is the road to chaos. I’m convinced the pendulum will eventually swing back toward audiences hungry for some wise, value-laden, ethical intermediation.

The nexus between ethics and the business of journalism is stark. Without a lot of detail allow me to point out five areas where that nexus between a bottom-line oriented media landscape and ethics causes Prilosec purchases to soar in my household.

1. Immediacy
We now have the ABILITY to report the news instantaneously. That does not mean we HAVE TO report it immediately. Immediacy should not mean “here’s the news, I think.” Truth-telling and minimizing harm are incredibly important values for any journalist, but this rush to get on-line or on the air fastest is making a mockery out of both of those values. Too often news organizations are racing ahead with what we would have called rumors 10 years ago. The ESPN ombudsman talked at length recently about a case in which ESPN reported single-sourced,  incorrect information and then acted all day like it was a surprise when their rumored allegation concerning Michael Vick  did not come true. We cannot let that become the norm.

I will not belabor this, but take a hard look at the stories about Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith and tell me that the ethical standards of privacy, innocence before presumed guilt, minimizing harm and commitment to truth telling are religiously observed.  Don’t look too hard.  Celebrities and sports figures are getting hammered in this “modern’ age as if journalistic standards do not matter in these cases. 

A bright, inquisitive student looked at me innocently the other day as I discussed properly sourcing stories and asked, “Are these rules different for sports stories because they use unnamed sources all the time.” My poor students were convinced the old, fat guy was having the big one when I screamed, “THE RULES ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DIFFERENT FOR SPORTS!” We are running a huge risk of convincing our audience that standards are flexible and disposable unless we start treating celebrities and sports figures with the same dignity and respect other newsmakers get.

3. Discussion forums
The digital age allows us to host discussion forums on our web sites. We have to make some tough, legitimate decisions about whether those forums are proper tip services for stories and then we have to decide how we are going to use that information. I was vastly disappointed last week when the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Arizona used anonymous sources from one of their own discussion forums to call a potential city council candidate a “city hall lapdog.”  I thought the use of anonymous pejoratives was an absolute boundary line for journalists. Are we going to somehow justify the use of anonymous pejoratives if we’re quoting from a blog or an online forum? I can see the road to perdition from here.

4.News decisions
All the gurus are telling us immediacy and brevity are the tickets to the new generation of audiences. I argue that telling our audience stuff they don’t know about AND stuff that is actually relevant and important to them  matters just as much. When a television station tells me that a fire has just been put out by the Phoenix Fire department and it never amounted to anything that is NOT news just because your helicopter got there to report said non-news. An essential part of our public service mission is to order, prioritize and categorize information that will help people become viable citizens of our world, our community and our culture. People want to be informed. We are lying to ourselves if we think audiences can’t handle legitimate news.

5. That leads us to the final ethical value related to the business of journalism. The ethics experts call it sufficiency. McGuire calls it ethical stewardship. It is simply the act of allocating adequate resources to important issues. Journalists are stewards of a public trust. We owe readers solid news coverage of events that matter to them and when we make short-sighted business decisions to cut out reportorial resources which would guarantee better stories we are being poor stewards.  We threaten our franchise’s long-term value to our audience just so we can tell corporate we made this month’s budget.  Increasingly the important ethical business judgment is to tell short-sighted owners that the franchise is threatened unless we do a better job for our readers and viewers.

As we watch our audiences diminish we face a crucial business choice: do we continue to cut news gathering resources and continue to push audience away, or do we stand our ground and fight for better news gathering?

This merged study of ethics and the business and future of journalism allows me to make this guarantee: We are not going to cut our way to prosperity.