On Recognizing Genuinely Ethical Journalism

Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor, by Norman Rockwell (1946)

“Fundamentally,” said Mordecai Richler, “all writing is about the same thing; it’s about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustration that it creates.”

Journalism is not creative writing. Journalism is a discipline that is taught and learned. To recognize solid journalistic ethics look for multiple primary sources and solidly supported facts, from the public record to the level of consistency across primary sources. As the informal creed of the old City News Bureau in Chicago put it, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Mechanics: Lead paragraph — short, around 25 words or less answering the basic questions of who, what, where, when, why and how; Always corroborate with attribution, from the perspectives of primary sources and as much public record (civil documentary items, like police, court and other civil records) as possible.

Journalistic trust can only be as solid as the facts they strive to uncover. As Edward R. Murrow once reminded the powerful suits of the broadcast industry in a speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago, back on October 15, 1958, “It is not necessary to remind you of the fact that your voice, amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other, does not confer upon you greater wisdom than when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.”

While the infotainment landscape looked a whole lot different back in the autumn of 1958 than it does now, journalism is still ostensibly taught and learned in order to sustain an informed electorate while creating the proverbial first draft of history. Then as now, the more that reporters, editors and columnists stray from their journalistic discipline, the further their work crosses the line into propaganda, misinformation, or both.

The bulk of the burden is on the news business. Without being taught the mechanics of ethical journalism, casual news consumers can be forgiven, to a point, for failing to recognize the line between genuinely ethical reporting and cynical propaganda. Just this week, meanwhile, the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released a study of media trust finding that not all Americans universally embrace the ethics guiding journalistic inquiry.

“These core journalism values include such ideals as it’s vital for a free society to monitor the powerful to keep them from misbehaving, and the press should be a voice for the less powerful in society,” Eric Young, Public Affairs Manager for the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), writes in the Introduction to the study’s report. “In all, only 11% of Americans unreservedly embrace all five of the journalism principles tested and these people tend to be politically liberal. However, most Americans don’t fully endorse these journalism principles, and the distrust goes beyond traditional partisan politics.” The five principles of journalistic inquiry applied by the study are oversight, transparency, factualism, providing a voice for the less powerful and social criticism.

In a more perfect Union, however, even as technology broadens the options for news consumption, news consumers would take their role as an electorate more seriously by approaching with discernment what the media landscape throws at us. But it is a tall order and it is not getting any easier.

According to something called Tech Startups, fifty corporations controlled cable and broadcast media in 1983 and by 2011, the number had shrunk to five — identified herein as General Electric, NewsCorp, Disney, Time-Warner and Viacom/CBS (which merged in December 2019). Murrow’s warnings were about the effects of private advertisers upon the news departments of broadcasters on publicly regulated airwaves. The corporations that advertised on broadcast media now own them flat out, while airwaves have long since evolved into a whole other animal, even as far back as 1983.

The media landscape has only gotten sloppier since. Netflix, for example, still buys content but also produces its own programming while Google, Apple and Amazon are getting increasingly into the game.

“To a very considerable extent, the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it grows and flourishes,” Murrow concluded, back during the Eisenhower administration and it still holds up. “But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”

By now, the story makes for vivid if not grim poetry exemplified in the lyrics of “Casino Nation,” released in 2002 by Jackson Browne:

“In a weapons producing nation under Jesus; In the fabled crucible of the free world; Camera crews search for clues amid the detritus; And entertainment shapes the land; The way the hammer shapes the hand.”

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