The Bad Behavior of Journalists

What happens when journalists behave badly?  Usually they end up getting fired.  Just like Adam Richman, who’s new show Man Finds Food was just pulled from The Travel Channel because of his twitter outburst over the use of the hashtag #thinspiration.  And who can forget Alec Baldwin’s epic meltdown that played a part in getting him dismissed from MSNBC?  Sometimes it isn’t even really bad behavior, but injecting themselves inappropriately into the stories and issues they are covering.  Octavia Nasr lost her 20 year career at CNN for tweeting her sympathy over the death of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.  Without thinking of the consequence, Nasr alienated a significant population of her “beat,” and CNN has to let her go.

Even honesty in tweeting isn’t a defense.  Renee Gork was a sports reporter at an Arknasaw radio station.  She once wore a Florida Gators hat to a Razorback press conference, which raised a few eyebrows.  Many thought that was why she was fired, but in a brutally honest tweet, she admitted she’d rather be covering the Gators than the Razorbacks.  Her station fired her, in part, for that tweet.

In all these cases the journalists broke a basic ethical code.  Namely, don’t give the impression of favoritism, don’t show even an appearance of conflict of interest.  While commentators like Richman and Baldwin have more leeway under the code, by their very nature they are biased commentators, their firings show that even clearly biased journalists, who’s job is to be biased, can cross the line.

But what is that line?  It’s less a written code of ethics, although those are important, as it is a journalistic mindset.  Journalism isn’t about writing, it’s about serving.  But it isn’t the editors and the publisher the journalist serves, it is the reader.  And in a group of serious journalists, deceiving the reader can lead to an insurrection.

Look at what happened at the New York Times over the Jayson Blair fiasco.  Blair had plagiarized and fabricated stories for months at The Times, and had gotten away with it.   New leadership had come on board just five days before 9/11.  In the aftermath of 9/11, Blair’s deception was discovered, ultimately in a story he wrote about a trip to Texas he didn’t make.  Blair lost his job and his career.  But the anger from the staff also lead to the firings of the editors as well.  They had allowed the paper to deceive the reader, and they too had to go.

This dedication to the reader, or viewer and listener in broadcasting, is the hallmark of journalist as apposed to pseudo-journalists, according to former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll.  In a speech he delivered in 2004, Carroll had Fox News in his sites, but made it clear that anyone claiming to be a journalist but didn’t place the reader first was a pseudo-journalist.  And that pseudo-journalists are destroying the public trust.  Carroll said it best.

What we’re seeing is a difference between journalism and pseudo-journalism, between journalism and propaganda. The former seeks earnestly to serve the public. The latter seeks to manipulate it.

– John Carroll in a speech given at the University of Oregon in 2004

Back in 2004, the mega-sites of the blogging world were infants.  Version 1.0 of WordPress had come out shortly before this speech, so the blogosphere had not quite exploded.  One can only wonder what Carroll would have thought about the state of pseudo-journalism today and the explosion of social media as a platform to manipulate the public.

Today, we have a world where the blogosphere has all but taken over, for the better or worse.  Those at the top of the blogosphere can make or break you with a simple link.  Get the attention of a blog with 100,000 readers and you can either have a server meltdown with the traffic driven to your site, or you will die in obscurity because the viewers were told what an awful person you are.  Your personal journalistic integrity is meaningless in the blogosphere culture, at least as far as success is measured there.

The lack of focus on the reader, the public, has further eroded public trust in journalism.  In his speech, Carroll referred to newspapers as factories on the river of public discourse.  He says that newspapers and journalist pollute that river with their mistakes.  And, he continues, “A good newspaper cleans up after itself.”  The blogosphere has no method of cleaning up after itself, and lies told once get repeated over and over again, repeatedly polluting the discourse.  This egregious situation has further eroded the public trust in journalism.

Blogs make errors constantly.  Bloggers tend to feel like they are on a breaking story and must publish as rapidly as possible to be the first to break the news, and in the rush to do so errors are made.  Even newspapers and broadcasters are guilty of this, but the difference is that newspapers and broadcasters who care about the public trust go back and promptly correct those mistakes.  Mistakes are inevitable, making them is not the sin.  Failing to correct them is.

Backing up to the start of this post, social media has made it even harder for journalists to maintain the proper perspective and appearance required to be effective at their job.  For the blogger, it is almost impossible.  Using social media to promote your blog means inevitably coming against someone who disagrees with you.  Eventually you will say something you regret, but then it will be too late.  You stopped being a journalist, assuming you ever were one, and became a partisan.  You stopped serving the public and started serving yourself.

So on this 4th of July, after you’ve consumed your back yard cookout and hopefully watched the firework celebration of the birth of a nation, think on what it is you write about.  Is it for you, or is it for the public.  Are you writing to your readers, or to sway them.  Let’s all work to stop the pollution in the river of public discourse.

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