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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Vasectomy Requirement Part of Virginia Man’s Plea Deal « CBS DC

Vasectomy Requirement Part of Virginia Man’s Plea Deal « CBS DC.

This is perhaps one of the worst cases of Journalism I’ve ever seen.  It brings up the specter of Eugenics and “forced sterilization” without ever once actually interviewing anyone who actually believes this issue has anything to do with Eugenics and “forced sterilization.”  That all came from the reporter’s mind.  It’s shoddy emotional journalism at its finest.

An Update and more on Doxing.

Late last night I posted about Doxing.  The lawsuit I surmised was at least partially about doxing Paul Krendler is dead.  You can read Judge Blake’s order in full on Hogewash!  Rereading the post, it is clear that I got caught up in a specific case about Doxing and didn’t really explain the issue of why Doxing is good or bad.

Ultimately Doxing is about exposing personally identifiable information about a person or persons on the Internet.  Sometimes, as in the case of White Hat Doxing, the intention is to embarrass someone who is doing rude, crude and socially unacceptable things on the internet to shaming.  For example, say an upstanding member of society is secretly also trying to host revenge porn, that might be viewed by some as White Hat Doxing.

But White Hat and Black Hat Doxing is all about putting sensitive and private information about a person out to as large an audience as possible.  Some claim it is for journalistic endeavors, but I have worked in the news business on and off for nearly 20 years, and I can’t recall any local or national station or paper revealing a newsworthy subject’s home address, work address, phone numbers, spouse’s work numbers, children’s names and more unless it directly and indisputably supported the story.  Usually “legitimate” news sources are much more circumspect about such sensitive information.

For example, A is accused of murdering B in B’s south side home.  That gives plenty of details and there is no need to reveal the exact address.  It might be mentioned that A was employed at B’s Computer Design Firm “X”, but the phone number is irrelevant.

To make a data dump of all this personal information is really not something real journalists would do.  It would undermine their authority and respectability.  And threatening to Dox someone, or reveal entire family personal data, to obtain a comment would make future sources even less likely to come forward.  So I don’t buy the concept that Doxing could ever serve real journalistic aims.

Instead, Doxing is designed not to be a journalist, but to be a harasser.  It is the most vile type of harassment I can think of, since the intention is not for the person Doxing to actively harass, but to know that there is a minority of people who will start to harass the individuals exposed.  I’m not saying a journalist wouldn’t gather all the information I’m talking about.  They do.  But they don’t publish any more than is required to tell the story.

A great real world example of what I’m talking about is the George Zimmerman case.  News media around the country knew exactly where Zimmerman lived.  They didn’t publish it, because his home address wasn’t relevant to the case.  Actress Roseanne Barr thought it was a vital bit of information, and tweeted the address to her followers.  Barr is well known as an anti-gun activist, and needless to say a minority of her followers took it upon themselves to call up and harass the Zimmermans, including threats of violence.  The Zimmermans had to flee their home as a result.  A lawsuit in that case has been filed.

I don’t think anyone could argue that Barr acted in good faith as a journalist in tweeting that information.  I think it is reasonable to assume that she released that information with the hope that her followers would do exactly what they did.  I won’t go into the morality of a anti-gun violence advocate using threats of violence against a family.  Even if you find George Zimmerman repulsive, there is no need to bring his innocent parents to the point of death threats and threats of violence.

This is why the Society of Profession Journalists have, in the code of ethics, an entire section entitled Minimize Harm.  The gist of the section is basically don’t be an asshole.  The fact that you know something doesn’t make it newsworthy or relevant.  Journalist are expected to handle subjects with dignity and care.  That’s not to say that aren’t supposed to tell the truth, but they don’t have to tell ever tiny tidbit of truth.

If Doxing were the journalistic norm, imagine what every news story would read like.  Bob Smith is suspected of Murder by the Morgan County Sheriffs Department.  Smith is 6’4″ tall, weighs 320 pounds and has dark curly hair.  Smith suffers from alcoholism, narcotics addiction and gambling addiction.  Smith lives in a white and yellow rancher found at 123 Main Street.  He is employed by Madison Metal Works which is located at 456 1st Street and can be reached at 123-555-4242.  He is married to Jane Smith, who is 5’8″, weighs 136 pounds and has long blonde hair. Their home phone number is 123-456-7890.  Mrs. Smith is currently employed at the 401(c)3 charity Godly Overtures of Fatherhood.  Their number is 123-555-6969.  They have two children, Heather, 10, and Rebecca, 8.  The children attend school at Yuck Fu Elementary school.  Heather, who is 4’9″ and has wavy black hair, plays softball for the Yuck Fu Ninjas while Rebecca attends dance class at Jillian’s School of Dance studying Tap and Hip Hop.  The murder took place….

I think you get the picture.

Journalists don’t do that.  Because it causes harm.  First, Bob hasn’t been convicted of anything, yet.  So revealing all this information is willfully putting his family at risk and under scrutiny for something they are not accused of doing.  Journalist would never identify children who were not central to the story, and even then most likely wouldn’t considering their age.  This just isn’t how journalist operate.

So I guess it is safe to say I don’t hold with the argument that doxing someone is a journalistic endeavor and is instead a form of social shaming at best and outright harassment at worse.  And people who engage in this activity should be ashamed of themselves.