Journalism ethics and standards
We need enforceable laws that requires all news agencies to verify the truth of anything, article, or commentary, published be grounded upon absolute truth.
There should also (as much as I am against excessive governmental agencies) a government agencies that does nothing but daily check for false news reports.
If any news agency is caught publishing any event, any quote, from any source not verified to the smallest detain, which also contains a political slant should lose their licence and fined for whatever value their agency holds. This will force all news agencies to toe the line and abide by their own code of ethics.
This does not eliminate freedom of speech, but merely protects it by demanding the truth from those who have accepted the responsibility of sharing the news with the public…. which should be considered a sacred trust.
Journalism ethics and standards
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The primary themes common to most codes of journalistic standards and ethics are the following.
Accuracy and standards for factual reporting
Reporters are expected to be as accurate as possible given the time allotted to story preparation and the space available and to seek reliable sources.
Events with a single eyewitness are reported with attribution. Events with two or more independent eyewitnesses may be reported as fact. Controversial facts are reported with attribution.
Independent fact-checking by another employee of the publisher is desirable.
Corrections are published when errors are discovered. These corrections are called corrigendum in newspapers, they feature after on the next issue published.
Defendants at trial are treated only as having “allegedly” committed crimes, until conviction, when their crimes are generally reported as fact (unless, that is, there is serious controversy about wrongful conviction).
Opinion surveys and statistical information deserve special treatment to communicate in precise terms any conclusions, to contextualize the results, and to specify accuracy, including estimated error and methodological criticism or flaws.
Slander and libel considerations
Reporting the truth is almost never libel, which makes accuracy very important.
Private persons have privacy rights that must be balanced against the public interest in reporting information about them. Public figures have fewer privacy rights in U.S. law, where reporters are immune from a civil case if they have reported without malice. In Canada, there is no such immunity; reports on public figures must be backed by facts.
Publishers vigorously defend libel lawsuits filed against their reporters, usually covered by libel insurance.
Harm limitation principle
During the normal course of an assignment a reporter might go about gathering facts and details, conducting interviews, doing research and background checks, taking photos, and recording video and sound in search of justice. Harm limitation deals with the questions of whether everything learned should be reported and, if so, how. This principle of limitation means that some weight needs to be given to the negative consequences of full disclosure, creating a practical and ethical dilemma. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics offers the following advice, which is representative of the practical ideas of most professional journalists. Quoting directly:
Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
Recognise that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Recognise that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
In addition to codes of ethics, many news organizations maintain an in-house ombudsman whose role is, in part, to keep news organizations honest and accountable to the public. The ombudsman is intended to mediate in conflicts stemming from internal or external pressures, to maintain accountability to the public for news reported, to foster self-criticism, and to encourage adherence to both codified and uncodified ethics and standards. This position may be the same or similar to the public editor, though public editors also act as a liaison with readers and do not generally become members of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen.
An alternative is a news council, an industry-wide self-regulation body, such as the Press Complaints Commission, set up by UK newspapers and magazines. Such a body is capable of applying fairly consistent standards and of dealing with a higher volume of complaints but may not escape criticisms of being toothless.
Ethics and standards in practice
Main articles: journalism scandals, checkbook journalism, media bias, media ethics, and yellow journalism
One of the most controversial issues in modern reporting is media bias, particularly on political issues, but also with regard to cultural and other issues. Another is the controversial issue of checkbook journalism, which is the practice of news reporters paying sources for their information. In the U.S. it is generally considered unethical, with most mainstream newspapers and news shows having a policy forbidding it. While tabloid newspapers and tabloid television shows, which rely more on sensationalism, regularly engage in the practice.
There are also some wider concerns, as the media continue to change, for example, that the brevity of news reports and use of soundbites has reduced fidelity to the truth, and may contribute to a lack of needed context for public understanding. From outside the profession, the rise of news management contributes to the real possibility that news media may be deliberately manipulated. Selective reporting (spiking, double standards) are very commonly alleged against newspapers, and by their nature are forms of bias not easy to establish, or guard against.
This section does not address specifics of such matters, but issues of practical compliance, as well as differences between professional journalists on principles.
Standards and reputation
Among the leading news organizations that voluntarily adopt and attempt to uphold the common standards of journalism ethics described herein, adherence and general quality vary considerably. The professionalism, reliability, and public accountability of a news organization are three of its most valuable assets. An organization earns and maintains a strong reputation in part through the consistent implementation of ethical standards, which influence its position with the public and within the industry.
Genres, ethics, and standards
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Advocacy journalists—a term of some debate even within the field of journalism—by definition tend to reject “objectivity”, while at the same time maintaining many other common standards and ethics.
Civic journalism adopts a modified approach to objectivity; instead of being uninvolved spectators, the press is active in facilitating and encouraging public debate and examining claims and issues critically. This does not necessarily imply advocacy of a specific political party or position.
Creative nonfiction and literary journalism use the power of language and literary devices more akin to fiction to bring insight and depth into the often book-length treatment of the subjects about which they write. Such devices as dialogue, metaphor, digression and other such techniques offer the reader insights not usually found in standard news reportage. However, authors in this branch of journalism still maintain ethical criteria such as factual and historical accuracy as found in standard news reporting. They venture outside the boundaries of standard news reporting in offering richly detailed accounts. One widely regarded author in the genre is Joyce Carol Oates, as with her book on boxer Mike Tyson.
Investigative journalism often takes an implicit point of view on a particular public interest, by asking pointed questions and intensely probing certain questions. With outlets that otherwise strive for neutrality on political issues, the implied position is often uncontroversial—for example, that political corruption or abuse of children is wrong and perpetrators should be exposed and punished, that government money should be spent efficiently, or that the health of the public or workers or veterans should be protected. Advocacy journalists often use investigative journalism in support of a particular political position, or to expose facts that are only concerning to those with certain political opinions. Regardless of whether or not it is undertaken for a specific political faction, this genre usually puts a strong emphasis on factual accuracy, because the point of an in-depth investigation of an issue is to expose facts that spur change. Not all investigations seek to expose facts about a particular problem; some data-driven reporting does deep analysis and presents interesting results for the general edification of the audience which might be interpreted in different ways or which may contain a wealth of facts concerned with many different potential problems. A factually-constrained investigation with an implied public interest point of view may also find that the system under investigation is working well.
New Journalism and Gonzo journalism also reject some of the fundamental ethical traditions and will set aside the technical standards of journalistic prose in order to express themselves and reach a particular audience or market segment. These favor a subjective perspective and emphasize immersive experiences over objective facts.
Tabloid journalists are often accused of sacrificing accuracy and the personal privacy of their subjects in order to boost sales. The 2011 News International phone hacking scandal is an example of this. Supermarket tabloids are often focused on entertainment rather than news. A few have “news” stories that are so outrageous that they are widely read for entertainment purposes, not for information. Some tabloids do purport to maintain common journalistic standards but may fall far short in practice. Others make no such claims.
Some publications deliberately engage in satire, but give the publication the design elements of a newspaper, for example, The Onion, and it is not unheard of for other publications to offer the occasional, humorous articles appearing on April Fool’s Day.
Relationship with freedom of the press
In countries without freedom of the press, the majority of people who report the news may not follow the above-described standards of journalism. Non-free media are often prohibited from criticizing the national government, and in many cases are required to distribute propaganda as if it were news. Various other forms of censorship may restrict reporting on issues the government deems sensitive. In the United States, freedom of the press is protected under the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Under the First Amendment, the government is not allowed to censor the press. The government does not have the right to try to control what is published and cannot prevent certain things from being published by the press. Prior constraint is an attempt by the government to prevent the expression of ideas before they are published. Some countries that have freedom of the press are the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and a handful of countries in South America.
Variations, violations, and controversies
There are a number of finer points of journalistic procedure that foster disagreements in principle and variation in practice among “mainstream” journalists in the free press. Laws concerning libel and slander vary from country to country, and local journalistic standards may be tailored to fit. For example, the United Kingdom has a broader definition of libel than does the United States.
Accuracy is important as a core value and to maintain credibility, but especially in broadcast media, audience share often gravitates toward outlets that are reporting new information first. Different organizations may balance speed and accuracy in different ways. The New York Times, for instance, tends to print longer, more detailed, less speculative, and more thoroughly verified pieces a day or two later than many other newspapers. 24-hour television news networks tend to place much more emphasis on getting the “scoop.” Here, viewers may switch channels at a moment’s notice; with fierce competition for ratings and a large amount of airtime to fill, fresh material is very valuable. Because of the fast turn-around, reporters for these networks may be under considerable time pressure, which reduces their ability to verify information.
Laws with regard to personal privacy, official secrets, and media disclosure of names and facts from criminal cases and civil lawsuits differ widely, and journalistic standards may vary accordingly. Different organizations may have different answers to questions about when it is journalistically acceptable to skirt, circumvent, or even break these regulations. Another example of differences surrounding harm reduction is the reporting of preliminary election results. In the United States, some news organizations feel that it is harmful to the democratic process to report exit poll results or preliminary returns while voting is still open. Such reports may influence people who vote later in the day, or who are in western time zones, in their decisions about how and whether or not to vote. There is also some concern that such preliminary results are often inaccurate and may be misleading to the public. Other outlets feel that this information is a vital part of the transparency of the election process, and see no harm (if not considerable benefit) in reporting it.
Objectivity as a journalistic standard varies to some degree depending on the industry and country. For example, the government-funded BBC in the United Kingdom places a strong emphasis on political neutrality, but British newspapers more often tend to adopt political affiliations or leanings in both coverage and audience, sometimes explicitly. In the United States, major newspapers usually explicitly claim objectivity as a goal in news coverage, though most have separate editorial boards that endorse specific candidates and publish opinions on specific issues. Adherence to a claimed standard of objectivity is a constant subject of debate. For example, mainstream national cable news channels in the United States claim political objectivity but to various degrees, Fox News has been accused of conservative bias and MSNBC accused of liberal bias. The degree to which these leanings influence cherry-picking of facts, factual accuracy, the predominance of non-news opinion and commentators, audience opinion of the issues and candidates covered, visual composition, tone and vocabulary of stories is hotly debated.
News value is generally used to select stories for print, broadcast, blogs, and web portals, including those that focus on a specific topic. To a large degree, news value depends on the target audience. For example, a minor story in the United States is more likely to appear on CNN than a minor story in the Middle East which might be more likely to appear on Al Jazeera simply due to the geographic distribution of the channels’ respective audiences. It is a matter of debate whether this means that either network is less than objective, and that controversy is even more complicated when considering coverage of political stories for different audiences that have different political demographics (as with Fox News vs. MSNBC).
Some digital media platforms can use criteria to choose stories which are different than traditional news value. For example, while the Google News portal essentially chooses stories based on news value (though indirectly, through the choices of large numbers of independent outlets), users can set Google Alerts on specific terms which define personal subjective interests. Search engines, news aggregators, and social network feeds sometimes change the presentation of content depending on the consumer’s expressed or inferred preferences or leanings. This has both been cheered as bypassing traditional “gatekeepers” and whatever biases they may have in favor of audience-centric selection criteria, but criticized as creating a dangerous filter bubble which intentionally or unintentionally hides dissenting opinions and other content which might be important for the audience to see in order to avoid exposure bias and groupthink.
Taste, decency, and acceptability
Audiences have different reactions to depictions of violence, nudity, coarse language, or to people in any other situation that is unacceptable to or stigmatized by the local culture or laws (such as the consumption of alcohol, homosexuality, illegal drug use, scatological images, etc.). Even with similar audiences, different organizations and even individual reporters have different standards and practices. These decisions often revolve around what facts are necessary for the audience to know.
When certain distasteful or shocking material is considered important to the story, there are a variety of common methods for mitigating negative audience reaction. Advance warning of explicit or disturbing material may allow listeners or readers to avoid content they would rather not be exposed to. Offensive words may be partially obscured or bleeped. Potentially offensive images may be blurred or narrowly cropped. Descriptions may be substituted for pictures; graphic detail might be omitted. Disturbing content might be moved from a cover to an inside page, or from daytime to late evening when children are less likely to be watching.
There is often considerable controversy over these techniques, especially concern that obscuring or not reporting certain facts or details is self-censorship that compromises objectivity and fidelity to the truth, and which does not serve the public interest.
For example, images and graphic descriptions of war are often violent, bloody, shocking and profoundly tragic. This makes certain content disturbing to some audience members, but it is precisely these aspects of war that some consider to be the most important to convey. Some argue that “sanitizing” the depiction of war influences public opinion about the merits of continuing to fight, and about the policies or circumstances that precipitated the conflict. The amount of explicit violence and mutilation depicted in war coverage varies considerably from time to time, from organization to organization, and from country to country.
Reporters have also been accused of indecency in the process of collecting news, namely that they are overly intrusive in the name of journalistic insensitivity. War correspondent Edward Behr recounts the story of a reporter during the Congo Crisis who walked into a crowd of Belgian evacuees and shouted, “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?”
Campaigning in the media
Many print publications take advantage of their wide readership and print persuasive pieces in the form of unsigned editorials that represent the official position of the organization. Despite the ostensible separation between editorial writing and news gathering, this practice may cause some people to doubt the political objectivity of the publication’s news reporting. (Though usually unsigned editorials are accompanied by a diversity of signed opinions from other perspectives.)
Other publications and many broadcast media only publish opinion pieces that are attributed to a particular individual (who may be an in-house analyst) or to an outside entity. One particularly controversial question is whether media organizations should endorse political candidates for office. Political endorsements create more opportunities to construe favoritism in reporting, and can create a perceived conflict of interest.
Investigative journalism is largely an information-gathering exercise, looking for facts that are not easy to obtain by simple requests and searches, or are actively being concealed, suppressed or distorted. Where investigative work involves undercover journalism or use of whistleblowers, and even more if it resorts to covert methods more typical of private detectives or even spying, it brings a large extra burden on ethical standards.
Anonymous sources are double-edged—they often provide especially newsworthy information, such as classified or confidential information about current events, information about a previously unreported scandal, or the perspective of a particular group that may fear retribution for expressing certain opinions in the press. The downside is that the condition of anonymity may make it difficult or impossible for the reporter to verify the source’s statements. Sometimes news sources hide their identities from the public because their statements would otherwise quickly be discredited. Thus, statements attributed to anonymous sources may carry more weight with the public than they might if they were attributed.
The Washington press has been criticized in recent years for excessive use of anonymous sources, in particular to report information that is later revealed to be unreliable. The use of anonymous sources increased markedly in the period before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Examples of ethical dilemmas
One of the primary functions of journalism ethics is to aid journalists in dealing with many ethical dilemmas they may encounter. From highly sensitive issues of national security to everyday questions such as accepting a dinner from a source, putting a bumper sticker on one’s car, publishing a personal opinion blog, a journalist must make decisions taking into account things such as the public’s right to know, potential threats, reprisals and intimidations of all kinds, personal integrity, conflicts between editors, reporters and publishers or management, and many other such conundra. The following are illustrations of some of those.
The Pentagon Papers dealt with extremely difficult ethical dilemmas faced by journalists. Despite government intervention, The Washington Post, joined by The New York Times, felt the public interest was more compelling and both published reports. The cases went to the Supreme Court where they were merged and are known as New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713.
The Washington Post also once published a story about a listening device that the United States had installed over an undersea Soviet cable during the height of the cold war. The device allowed the United States to learn where Soviet submarines were positioned. In that case, Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee chose not to run the story on national security grounds. However, the Soviets subsequently discovered the device and, according to Bradlee, “It was no longer a matter of national security. It was a matter of national embarrassment.” However, the U.S. government still wanted The Washington Post not to run the story on the basis of national security, yet, according to Bradlee, “We ran the story. And you know what, the sun rose the next day.”
The Center for International Media Ethics, an international non-profit organisation “offers platform for media professionals to follow current ethical dilemmas of the press” through its blog. Besides highlighting the ethical concerns of recent stories, journalists are encouraged to express their own opinion. The organisation “urges journalists to make their own judgments and identify their own strategies.”
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a joint venture, public service project of Chicago Headline Club Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Ethics and Social Justice, provides some examples of typical ethical dilemmas reported to their ethical dilemma hotline and are typical of the kinds of questions faced by many professional journalists.
A partial listing of questions received by The Ethics AdviceLine:
Is it ethical to make an appointment to interview an arsonist sought by police, without informing police in advance of the interview?
Is lack of proper attribution plagiarism?
Should a reporter write a story about a local priest who confessed to a sex crime if it will cost the newspaper readers and advertisers who are sympathetic to the priest?
Is it ethical for a reporter to write a news piece on the same topic on which he or she has written an opinion piece in the same paper?
Under what circumstances do you identify a person who was arrested as a relative of a public figure, such as a local sports star?
Freelance journalists and photographers accept cash to write about, or take photos of, events with the promise of attempting to get their work on the AP or other news outlets, from which they also will be paid. Is that ethical?
Can a journalist reveal a source of information after guaranteeing confidentiality if the source proves to be unreliable?
Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman of the National Institute of Development Administration, Thailand, argued that journalistic professionalism is a combination of two factors, secondary socialization of journalists in the workplace and the fetishization of journalistic norms and standards. In this way, undesirable traits in new journalists can be weeded out, and remaining journalists are free to cynically criticize journalistic professional norms as long as they keep working and following them. This criticism is adapted from interviews of twenty political journalists from BBC News, Sky News, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post and MSNBC/NBC News, and from philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s concept of ideology.
The news Agencies cannot be trusted for the absolute truth,
Not on their own will power… they need help by the threat of severe punishment
Harvard Business Review Home
Government | Why the News Is Not the Truth
ews and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works, Paul H. Weaver (The Free Press, 1994).
Who Stole the News?: Why We Can’t Keep Up with What Happens in the World, Mort Rosenblum (John Wiley & Sons, 1993).
Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America, Cynthia Crossen (Simon & Schuster, 1994).
The U.S. press, like the U.S. government, is a corrupt and troubled institution. Corrupt not so much in the sense that it accepts bribes but in a systemic sense. It fails to do what it claims to do, what it should do, and what society expects it to do.
The news media and the government are entwined in a vicious circle of mutual manipulation, mythmaking, and self-interest. Journalists need crises to dramatize news, and government officials need to appear to be responding to crises. Too often, the crises are not really crises but joint fabrications. The two institutions have become so ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that the news media are unable to tell the public what is true and the government is unable to govern effectively. That is the thesis advanced by Paul H. Weaver, a former political scientist (at Harvard University), journalist (at Fortune magazine), and corporate communications executive (at Ford Motor Company), in his provocative analysis entitled News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works.
Journalists and politicians have become ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that misleads the public.
Take, for example, the long effort in the 1980s to eliminate the federal deficit, centered on the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Amendment. For several years, newspapers, magazines, and television newscasts ran hundreds of stories on the debates over Gramm-Rudman, the views of all sorts of experts on the urgent need for deficit reduction, and the eventual enactment of the legislation. Politicians postured—and were described—as working diligently to get a grip on the deficit. Anyone who read a newspaper or watched television news received the message that Congress and the Reagan administration were heroically and painfully struggling to contain government spending and reduce the deficit.
Behind the smoke screen, however, congressional committees and federal officials were increasing spending and adding new programs in the routine annual budgeting and appropriations processes. When journalists reported on a new program, they usually characterized it as good news—the government tackling another problem—rather than as an addition to the budget and the deficit. Journalists conspired with politicians to create an image of a government fighting to end the deficit crisis, but they ignored the routine procedures that increased the deficit. As a result, Weaver writes, “there were no news stories about government adding to the deficit even though that was what was happening.”
The news media and the government have created a charade that serves their own interests but misleads the public. Officials oblige the media’s need for drama by fabricating crises and stage-managing their responses, thereby enhancing their own prestige and power. Journalists dutifully report those fabrications. Both parties know the articles are self-aggrandizing manipulations and fail to inform the public about the more complex but boring issues of government policy and activity.
What has emerged, Weaver argues, is a culture of lying. “The culture of lying,” he writes, “is the discourse and behavior of officials seeking to enlist the powers of journalism in support of their goals, and of journalists seeking to co-opt public and private officials into their efforts to find and cover stories of crisis and emergency response. It is the medium through which we Americans conduct most of our public business (and a lot of our private business) these days.” The result, he says, is a distortion of the constitutional role of government into an institution that must continually resolve or appear to resolve crises; it functions in “a new and powerful permanent emergency mode of operation.”
The architect of the transformation was not a political leader or a constitutional convention but Joseph Pulitzer, who in 1883 bought the sleepy New York World and in 20 years made it the country’s largest newspaper. Pulitzer accomplished that by bringing drama to news—by turning news articles into stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and colorful details. In the late nineteenth century, most newspaper accounts of government actions were couched in institutional formats, much like the minutes of a board meeting and about as interesting. Pulitzer turned them into stories with a sharp dramatic focus that both implied and aroused intense public interest. Most newspapers of the time looked like the front page of the Wall Street Journal still does. Pulitzer made stories dramatic by adding blaring headlines, big pictures, and eye-catching graphics. His journalism took events out of their dry, institutional contexts and made them emotional rather than rational, immediate rather than considered, and sensational rather than informative. The press became a stage on which the actions of government were a series of dramas.
Pulitzer’s journalism has become a model for the multistage theater of recent decades. The rise of television has increased the demand for drama in news, and the explosion in lobbyists and special-interest groups has expanded the number of actors and the range of conflicts.
Business had to learn to play the game as well. Indeed, in recent decades, roughly since the founding of the Business Roundtable in the late 1970s, many companies have become adept at promoting the version of reality they want the public and government officials to believe. Weaver himself was hired at Ford as, in effect, a corporate propagandist. Companies now routinely use persuasion and image making, whether to attract political allies through philanthropy (Philip Morris Companies), to promote their economic interests (Mobil Oil Corporation), or to deflect critics of their products and processes (McDonald’s Corporation).
As a result, business has become a prominent player in the manipulation of perception and in the corruption of the public policy process. Weaver recounts that during his years at Ford, executives were given scripts before being interviewed by journalists to ensure that they would make the points the company wished to make: “They were literally performing.” What the scripts said was almost never what people in the company really thought but what Ford wanted the media, the government, and the public to think.
When President Jimmy Carter asked the 400 largest corporations to limit wage and price increases to contain inflation in 1978, most Ford Motor executives were cynical and thought the move would make inflation worse. But that isn’t what they said. Ford issued a statement welcoming the president’s initiative and endorsing its goal. The company noted that, although its own pricing plans called for increases greater than the president’s guidelines, it supported his program. Ford’s image makers decided that it would be politically dangerous to oppose the anti-inflation effort publicly and hoped that the company’s seeming support would help restrain its suppliers from increasing prices and its workers from demanding higher wages. Ford’s statement itself was a cynical lie.
At Ford, Weaver learned that news often has a dual identity, an external façade and an internal reality, much like the Japanese duality of tatemae (appearance) and honne (reality). “On the surface there was a made-up public story put out for the purpose of manipulating others in ways favorable to the story makers,” he writes. “Behind that was another story, known to those immediately involved and to outsiders with the knowledge to decode it, concerning the making of the public story and the private objectives it was meant to advance. The two stories, or realities, were often wildly at odds with each other. In the real world, the role of the press was to promote public illusions and private privilege.”
The press corrupts itself, the public policy process, and the public’s perceptions, Weaver argues, when it seeks out and propagates dueling cover stories, with their drama, conflict, and quotable advocates, but fails to discover or report the underlying realities. The press prints the news but not the truth. It reports in detail the competing propaganda of the conflicting interests but largely neglects the substance of the issue in conflict. A recent example is the coverage of the health care debate. The Media Research Center studied the television networks’ evening newscasts between June 15 and July 15, 1994. Of the 68 reports on health care reform, 56 focused on political aspects, and only 12 dealt with the economic or individual impacts of various proposals, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
The media’s practice of focusing on the manipulators and their machinations rather than on substantive issues is perhaps unavoidable because it reflects several aspects of American culture. Personalities are more compelling than institutions, facts are often uncertain, attention spans (and television sound bites) are brief, and simplification—often oversimplification—is the norm. But the media’s focus on façades has several consequences.
One is that news can change perceptions, and perceptions often become reality. Adverse leaks or innuendos about a government official often lead to his or her loss of influence, resignation, or dismissal. The stock market is also fertile ground for planted stories. Rumors or allegations spread by short sellers often drive a stock’s price down. There may be nothing wrong with either the official’s performance or the stock’s value, but the willingness of the press to report innuendos and rumors as news changes reality. The subjects of such reports, which are usually fabrications created by opponents, must be prepared to defend themselves instantly. The mere appearance of a disparaging report in the press changes perceptions and, unless effectively rebutted, will change reality and the truth. That is why government officials and politicians—and, increasingly, companies and other institutions—pay as much attention to communications as to policy.
Indeed, much of what appears in the newspapers as business news is nothing more than corporate propaganda. When I was an executive at a large public-relations agency, I was often amused to observe how many of the stories in the Wall Street Journal and the business section of the New York Times were essentially news releases the agency had issued the previous day. On some days, most of the stories were clearly identifiable as coming—some nearly word for word—from announcements by corporations or government agencies.
Much of what appears in the press as business news is corporate propaganda.
In an environment in which perceptions can quickly affect policy, companies need to be as alert and aggressive as politicians, government officials, and other interest groups are in ensuring that their positions are favorably represented in the media. New technology can often help them respond quickly to challenges, accusations, or misstatements. An incident that happened when I managed communications for a large global bank illustrates the ability of organizations to influence the presentation of news and hence the perceptions of the public and of government officials. A Wall Street Journal reporter finished interviewing bank officials on a complex and sensitive matter at about 5 p.m. in New York City. Three hours later, at 8 a.m. in Hong Kong, his story appeared in the Journal’s Asian edition. The bank’s Hong Kong office faxed us the story, which had interpreted our position somewhat unfavorably. My office promptly called the Journal’s copy desk in New York City to clarify the bank’s position. A more favorable account appeared the next morning in the newspaper’s European and U.S. editions.
One consequence of the prevalence of propaganda in the press is that the public’s confidence in all institutions gradually erodes. As people begin to realize that they are being misled, manipulated, and lied to, they resent it. From 1973 to 1993, only Congress fell further in public esteem than the press, according to surveys of public confidence by the University of Michigan. The decline in confidence reflects a widening feeling that the news media are contentious, unfair, inaccurate, and under the thumb of powerful institutions, a 1989 survey by Gallup for the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press concluded.
From 1973 to 1993, only Congress fell further in esteem than the press.
Perhaps the most serious consequence of journalists’ focus on crises and conflicts is that both they and the public become blind to systemic issues. The focus on the politics of Gramm-Rudman obscured the fact that, for complex institutional reasons, government spending and deficits were continuing to rise. The savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s became so large and costly because the press was unable to focus on it until it became a crisis. The legislative mistakes and policy failures that had caused it were too complex, too hard to explain, and too boring. Until there was a rash of savings-and-loan failures, enabling the press to show front-page pictures of angry depositors trying to withdraw their money, there was no news and no crisis, and government was unable to respond.
The press’s inability to report events or trends that are not crises is not limited to public affairs and domestic news. In his amusing and anecdotal book Who Stole the News?: Why We Can’t Keep Up with What Happens in the World, longtime Associated Press special correspondent Mort Rosenblum argues that foreign correspondents sacrifice coverage of important but undramatic long-term trends in favor of dramatic events whose real importance may be minimal. Coups and earthquakes, he says, are what editors want to report. But when reporters try to cover “crucial trends taking shape at the normal pace of human events—slowly…editors have trouble packaging them.”
Rosenblum, like Weaver, argues that the press is far too willing to accept government officials’ self-promoting versions of events. He quotes Reuven Frank, a former president of NBC News, as asserting, “News is whatever the goddamn government says it is.” In a long account of the United Nations operation in Somalia a couple of years ago, Rosenblum contends that the German air force was far more efficient and effective in delivering aid than U.S. forces were. Yet few U.S. readers or viewers learned anything about the Germans’ work or even knew that Germans had participated in the relief effort.
What we learn about foreign news is as dependent on crises and dramatic pictures as our domestic news is. “The system is geared as much to amuse and divert as it is to inform,” Rosenblum writes, “and it responds inadequately when suddenly called upon to explain something…complex and menacing.”
Weaver makes a similar point. The real failing of the press, he argues, is that it has become a victim of the man-bites-dog syndrome. “What’s actually going on in the real world is the ordinary business of ordinary institutions,” he writes. “What officials and reporters converge on, therefore, are travesties, not real events. The news stops representing the real world and begins to falsify it. The barter transaction between newsmaker and journalist degenerates into an exercise in deceit, manipulation, and exploitation.”
The debate on health care reform of the past two years could prove to be a turning point in the destructive cycle. Despite a massive effort by the Clinton administration to whip up a sense of crisis and of the need for urgent reform, and despite intensive press coverage of the competing proposals and viewpoints, the result so far has been a stalemate. Surveys, including one conducted in November 1993 by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates for National Review, found that roughly 80% of U.S. citizens are satisfied with the quality of their present health care. On an issue with which people have firsthand experience and a direct interest, all the propaganda and manipulation have been for naught. When people can rely on their own knowledge and experience in forming opinions, even such a massive effort to effect change does not work. The midterm election results suggest that the U.S. electorate has become so distrustful of Congress and of government in general that it will eject any politician who would increase the power or intrusiveness of government.
Yet when people don’t have personal experience or sound information, they can easily be persuaded by a crisis story. The Alar pesticide scare of 1989 is one example. Alar was a pesticide sprayed on apples, and studies for the Environmental Protection Agency found that it caused tumors in laboratory animals that had been given high doses. Many apple growers had already stopped using it; by 1989, Alar was sprayed on less than 40%, and perhaps as little as 5%, of the country’s apples. But an environmental activist group thought that the EPA was too slow to ban it outright. The group did a statistical study called a risk assessment, based on dubious data, and concluded that Alar was dangerous to children, who eat more apples than adults do relative to their body weight. It arranged for its study to be released in an exclusive story on CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the result was a national panic.
The press swarmed on the story, which had all the necessary dramatic elements: a foot-dragging bureaucracy, a study finding that the country’s favorite fruit was poisoning its children, and movie stars opposing the pesticide. Sales of apples collapsed. Within months, Alar’s manufacturer withdrew it from the market, although both the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration stated that they believed Alar levels on apples were safe. The outcry simply overwhelmed scientific evidence.
That happens all too often, Cynthia Crossen argues in her book Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America. Although her writing is lax and references to sources are inadequate, the book nonetheless extends Weaver’s argument in several important respects. Crossen, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, focuses on how advocates of policy positions and companies promoting products misuse scientific research to further their objectives.
Wary of making decisions based on opinion or belief, the U.S. public has come to rely on facts, data, surveys, and presumably scientific studies. People are increasingly reluctant to believe any assertion that is not supported by statistical research. Yet, Crossen writes, “more and more of the information we use to buy, elect, advise, acquit and heal has been created not to expand our knowledge but to sell a product or advance a cause.”
A growing industry has thus developed to create the research to legitimize policy positions or marketing objectives. Public policy debates now commonly revolve around competing estimates of cost, effectiveness, or risk, rather than around the intrinsic merits of a proposal. Much of the health care debate raged around differing estimates of the numbers of citizens without health coverage and the costs of the various proposals to cover them. When President Bill Clinton promised Congress that he would rely on the forecasts of federal spending and deficits of the Congressional Budget Office rather than on those of the executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget, the representatives and senators cheered; they consider the CBO’s forecasts to be more favorable to Congress’s spending proclivities than those of the more cautious OMB.
Companies routinely use research studies to promote products or positions. White bread won’t cause you to gain weight and is nutritious, a study by the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research found. Its sponsor: the maker of Wonder Bread. Chocolate may actually inhibit cavities, concluded a study by the Princeton Dental Resource Center, which is funded by Mars, the maker of M&M’s and other chocolate candies. The U.S. public’s faith in so-called scientific research gives the studies impact, even when they contradict common sense and are patently self-serving. “Most members of the media are ill-equipped to judge a technical study,” Crossen correctly points out. “Even if the science hasn’t been explained or published in a U.S. journal, the media may jump on a study if it promises entertainment for readers or viewers. And if the media jump, that is good enough for many Americans.”
Crossen is particularly critical of the overuse and misuse of polls. How questions are worded and how samples are chosen can have a huge impact on the responses. In a 1992 mail-in questionnaire in an ad for Ross Perot in TV Guide, one question read, “Should the President have the Line Item Veto to eliminate waste?” Yes, 97% of respondents said. But when the question was reworded, “Should the President have the Line Item Veto, or not?” and asked of a scientifically selected random sample, only 57% said yes.
The press loves polls and surveys. They’re a surefire way to get publicity—even if the survey is scientifically, socially, or economically meaningless. The first question a smart public relations person asks a client is “What can we do a survey about?” A survey, however inane or irrelevant, will get the client’s name in the papers. A 1993 survey by the Southern Baptist Convention found that 46.1% of the people in Alabama risk going to hell; Crossen doesn’t say how it arrived at that conclusion. A 1991 Roper survey found that 2% of Americans may have been abducted by unidentified flying objects; Crossen doesn’t say who the sponsor was. “That’s what surveys do,” a Roper pollster says. “They basically manufacture news.” Political scientist Lindsay Rogers, by the way, coined the word pollster as a pejorative takeoff of the word huckster. Crossen calls them “pollers.”
Concocted or inaccurate surveys and studies taint our perceptions of what is true, and they distort public policy debates. Crossen concurs with Weaver that the media’s desire for drama encourages the distortion and corruption of public decision making. “The media are willing victims of bad information, and increasingly they are producers of it. They take information from self-interested parties and add to it another layer of self-interest—the desire to sell information.”
Both Crossen and Weaver end their books with lengthy lists of proposals for reforms. Crossen suggests that high schools should teach students the basics of statistics and how to tell whether numbers are believable. News organizations should train journalists in statistical analysis and should devote more space to describing the research methodology. Every story about research should identify the sponsor and describe its interest in the outcome or impact of the research. And the media should stop producing information that serves only to feed their own interests.
Weaver’s solutions are more sweeping, fundamental, and difficult. He argues that the press should cover crises and disasters less and political, social, and economic events more: less politics, more substance; less on personalities, more on institutions. When the president holds a press conference, for example, the press should cover all of its substance in a single article headed “Presidential Press Conference.”
That is quixotic and will never happen. It would be a return to pre-Pulitzer journalism. The media’s desire to attract an audience and the audience’s inability to concentrate for long would make such a format impossible. Equally unrealistic is another of Weaver’s recommendations. He urges news organizations to “establish a culture of responsibility and deliberation.” Anyone who has ever been in a newsroom at deadline knows how far that notion is from reality. Weaver also suggests that the media’s focus should be reoriented toward readers and away from advertisers and that media monopolies should be broken up. The rapid advance of information age technology—hundreds of cable television channels, the growth of specialized media, the spread of computer information resources—is certain to give citizens access to far more diverse sources of information and is likely to force the media to reinvent the ways in which they present news and other information.
But none of those changes are likely to alter the persistence of Weaver’s conundrum. A press driven by drama and crises creates a government driven by response to crises. Such an “emergency government can’t govern,” Weaver concludes. “Not only does public support for emergency policies evaporate the minute they’re in place and the crisis passes, but officials acting in the emergency mode can’t make meaningful public policies. According to the classic textbook definition, government is the authoritative allocation of values, and emergency government doesn’t authoritatively allocate values.”
In such an environment, the actors who most skillfully create and manipulate crises determine the direction of change. In the 1994 congressional elections, those actors were clearly the Republicans. Many of the reforms they advocate—such as the line-item veto, the restructuring of congressional committees and staffs, and the devolution of powers to the states—would, if implemented, tend to offset the dynamics of Pulitzerian journalism. Those reforms would help return the debate to the merits rather than the politics of government policies. And that would reduce the pressures on and the ability of government to respond to crises with emergency action and would return the development of policy to a steadier, more constitutional path.
The change in U.S. government would be revolutionary and would over time reduce the pressures on businesses to respond instantly to attacks and crises. For some years to come, however, businesses are likely to need more corporate propagandists, not fewer.