With the decay of codes of media ethics we need to be smarter than ever when choosing information we are willing to trust.
Donald Trump’s no-holds-barred electoral campaign, punctuated by pyrotechnic rally performances, used the media to generate waves of shock, ridicule and admiration through the United States and the world—and won him America’s presidency. These tactics—and the resulting counterattacks—jammed new information silos into the internet and helped divide the nation’s political constituencies. They also threatened the media’s codes of ethics, which specify moral values and standards of behavior that should be observed in the practice of professional journalism.
Soon after results were received for the 2016 US general election, Will Rahn of CBS News Digital offered an excellent internet essay that could be classified as a sort of mea culpa, about the Trump election victory and the campaign coverage provided by newspapers, television and radio:
The mood in the Washington press corps is bleak, and deservedly so. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that, with a few exceptions, we were all tacitly or explicitly #WithHer, which has led to a certain anguish in the face of Donald Trump’s victory. More than that and more importantly, we also missed the story, after having spent months mocking the people who had a better sense of what was going on. This is all symptomatic of modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing: its unbearable smugness. Had Hillary Clinton won, there’s be a winking ‘we did it’ feeling in the press, a sense that we were brave and called Trump a liar and saved the republic.
That struck a chord with me.
I pretty much agree with everything that Rahn said and was pleased that he published the CBS News article, though stung by his reference to the “unbearable smugness,” or air of superiority, assumed by leading American media. I went to journalism school when the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), prized its detailed code of ethics and, armed with this code, could crow about journalism’s claim to represent the Fourth Estate. This “estate” came to be believed more or less as fact after, in 1787, Thomas Carlyle told the English parliament that its reporters’ gallery was a “Fourth Estate more important” than the other three estates — the Church, the nobility and the commoners, or ordinary folk. Times have changed.
The preamble to the SPJ Code states that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.” Today those words seem almost utopian in their reach. Most publishers who wish to be considered serious news sources do pay lip service to the code. But like everyone else they must also please their patrons. Importantly, they must also compete with social media, that powerful online concoction of opinion, gossip, all manner of printed-word specialties from dictionaries to bomb-making advice, and the online personas of printed or formerly-printed newspapers and magazines. Newspapers feel the need to offer readers more excitement in order to compete better. For this reason I imagine some editors and publishers must look with secret envy at the adrenaline style and story picks of online barkers like Breitbart’s Big Government and American Patriot. “The internet has loosened our collective grasp on the truth,” sighed New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo. “Social media has become an increasingly powerful cultural and political force, to the point that its effects are now beginning to alter the course of global events.”
Newspaper readership has plummeted in the past decade and a half, public trust in what the papers say crawls the bottom of the charts along with politicians, and habitual readers are mostly aged over 50. Television news is followed by a goodly percentage of the population. But the internet, easy to read and increasingly tailored to the reader’s own tastes, takes the cake — 62% of US adults get news via social media.
Donald Trump would not have won the presidency without the skillful use of the internet and the other media. His name recognition, his angry but information-starved promises/threats about fixing all those dreadful problems that he believes are embedded in America, and his brand of implicit in-your-face self-importance gained ground every time the mainstream media called him out for his appalling references to women, immigrants, and minorities.
SPJ president Lynn Walsh recently reminded her membership that “journalists and news organizations need to continue responsible and ethical reporting, informing the public about their communities, our nation and the world. Americans – regardless of political allegiance – need to engage and invest in responsible and ethical reporting in order for it to thrive.”
Such talk is meaningless to Trump’s chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who doubles as media guru for the U.S. nationalist cause. “The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with this country,” he told Michael Wolff in the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f—ing idea what’s going on. If the New York Times didn’t exist, CNN and MSNBC would be a test pattern. The Huffington Post and everything else is predicated on the New York Times. It’s a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information — and her confidence. That was our opening.”
There’s truth in Bannon’s criticism, for news priorities selected by the Times and other large-staff media are closely watched by admirers and competitors alike. And the “closed circle” idea is strengthened by the increased reliance of the financially pressed old-time media on Associated Press and other wire-service (and press-release) information to fill their news columns. By contrast Trump and Bannon chose their own messages, for people who preferred information from outside the circle. They identified the core needs and attitudes of people of various political areas and crafted resolutions that would be mentioned in company with more generalized nationalist storylines for the speeches and printed matter that would be offered to appropriate audiences.
This creative no-holds-barred campaign, topped by Trump’s cross-country performances, attracted waves of shock, derision, and admiration – and won the election. Unfortunately these tactics also created new information silos within the social media and helped to divide the nation further, but that is another story. (In his emollient post-election 2016 Thanksgiving speech, Trump urged Americans to “begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country.”)
Alas, Lynn Walsh was preaching her ethical sermon to a choir that consists mostly of newspaper, radio, and television news writers, who know something about journalistic ethics. Little if any of her message would convey special meaning to the social media contributors, contract and PR writers, general mischief-makers, and propagandists who use internet media as tools for the support of retail and medical goods, a vast array of services, political causes, and political hopefuls.
Gung-ho demi-journalists also are in a good position to threaten codes of ethics, which lay down the moral values and standards of behavior to be observed by professional peers, including mass-media writers. If and when “bad behavior” becomes an accepted style, perish the thought will these codes of ethics be consigned to the shredder?
Like other SPJ fans I miss the days when editors would wave a fairly innocuous piece of copy at me and ask, “Did you fact-check this? What’s your source?” or, “If you want to write about your personal prejudices, save it for the editorial page.” Those days have just about vanished. This means that unless readers are content with being blithely and blindly trustful they must be on the alert. Which website, blog, or e-zine are we to believe? Which TV channel provides the best news coverage? Which newspaper is more balanced in its political news and comment, law and order, sports, international news, and the rest?
We need to keep abreast of local, national, and international news, for this is a vital part of the information we need to make our opinions known, defend our rights, and function as citizens of a democratic society. This we must do. But with the decay of codes of media ethics we need to be smarter than ever when we choose the information that we will read and trust. Otherwise, someone else will make that decision for us. This is happening already with the use of internet algorithms that “learn” our lifestyle preferences and social media choices, and send us information to match. Keeping our personal independence means that we must consider who is producing/sponsoring the information we read, the writer’s reliability, and perhaps even the type of world the information’s originator would like to see take shape.
Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future. ~ John F. Kennedy, 1958