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Thursday, 22 March 2012

As Media Changes, So Do Their Ethics

White House 'Bus Ticket'

No Transfers

for Boys on the Bus

The author, Richard Carreño, wrote this to an undergraduate at a New England university in an exchange of e-mails.

I'm happy to respond to your queries, though you're making me dust off some cobwebs from back in the day.

Years ago, I was a reader ombudsman for the small daily in Massachusetts. It was a simpler time. Like many things, it was also a time when it was easier to codify ethical issues in journalism as 'right' and 'wrong' with much more clarity, ease, and self-assuredness. And we were often wrong, as well. (More on that later). What made things seem so certain was the clear distinctions separating 'church' and 'state,' them and us. 'Us' mostly meant print media. TV and radio were thought second rate, and we were quick to dismiss broadcast media as a superficial, once-over-lightly treatment for the masses. Fires, murders, etc. We, on the other hand, were serious dudes. Thus was born the 'boys on the bus' mentality -- and the birth of pompous 'pack' journalism.

How serious? How pompous? Well, to the point that we considered considered ourselves to be the actual, ordained, one-and-only gatekeepers to the real news, reported, editing, and presented by real journalists (us). That's how ethical issues could back then be easily defined in black and white. Major newspapers set out to codify this rules: a no-gift policy, all travel must be paid by the news organization, no 'fraternizing' (read sleeping) with with the enemy (ie. sources) and the like. We thought we had it nailed, even though we knew all these regs and others were frequently violated. Those were days when the Main Stream Media had no competition. Who knew there was anything different? That's how wrong we were.

We live in much better times today in regards to media. Yes, print is dying. Well, really it's adjusting, modifying, finding a new role. The birth of news blogs. Web sites specifically devoted to news, the arts, politics, well, just about everything. This is a good thing. One result is that notions regarding ethics are also changing.

So, now that the cobwebs are mostly dusted off, let's talk about the here and now -- how journalists in today's work-world avoid conflict. In looking at your four questions, my answers for each are 'yes' and 'no.' Note, as well, that I'm using term 'journalist,' because ethical issues relate to all creators and purveyors of news, including editors and, yes, even publishers and owners. I'm not hedging re yes and no. The answers are linked to the following:

1. ENVIRONMENT OF THE JOURNALIST-SOURCE RELATIONSHIP. This can be broken down into these broad categories: A. Main-Stream Media (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times etc.) B. Main-Stream-News blogs (Slate, The Huffington Post, Politico). C. Advocacy blogs (Left and Right, including websites for The Nation, and The National Review, and my blog, The Philadelphia Junto, as well).

2.STATUS OF RELATIONSHIP: A. General assignment reporter (editor). B. Beat reporter. C. Opinion/Advocacy writer. 4. Senior editors, publishers, owners.

3. NATURE OF RELATIONSHIP. A. Gifts/Money (Pay-offs). B. Access. C. Status.

Based on this outline and set-up, I think I can answer your questions in a more detailed, nuanced way.

Question I.

1. A.B. Generally-speaking, no. Look what happened/happens when it does, viz Inside-the-Beltway Washington, where Pack Journalism in the MSM is alive and well. (See rush to war in Iraq. See reporting now on Iran). Of course, there are exceptions. But it is in Washington where the national news agenda is set, and a lot of this involves as much shoe leather as it takes to go from one cocktail party and country club to another.Joe Alsop during the Kennedy era started 'salon' journalism and it was carried forth in recent times, unfortunately, by the late Tim Russert of NBC News and his self-appointed, self-satisfied ilk who in large part created today's 'suck-up' journalism that creates heroes (ie John McCain) and then discards them. C. OK.

2. A. No. B. Yes, to varying degrees. For a beat reporter, sources are his/her lifeline to news. Schmoozing is essential. So are mobile numbers. So, yes, socialize away. But here's the hard part. Knowing when to draw the line. No gifts, no favors of value. Either way. C. OK. See B. 4. This is where it gets tricky, because here we're beginning to talk money. Publishers and owners are the keepers of the flame, financially speaking, of the First Amendment. But they are also businessmen. There are very few 'white knights' like the Sulzbergers of The Times. Most are like that slime-ball Murdoch. In small newspapers, publishers/owners suck up to business interests/advertisers in venal ways. In big media, the compromises are more insidious -- as they attempt to shape and report the news to benefit their 1-per center friends. Big media, after all, are capitalist businesses, out to make a buck. That's why I think ethical conflicts are less at non-profit and/or non-advertizer supported news orgs like The Nation, The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and The New London (Conn.) Day, etc.)


Yes. Many times. But I think I was able to adhere to the criteria set above. I never felt that I was ever compromised by any association with a source. What did bother me was that on one or two occasions, I think a source thought he had 'bought' me with menial gifts (a dinner, drinks, say), when of course, he did not. In situations like this, a critical article usually followed.


Again see above. An example of when it was 'not OK': A friend was a real estate reporter and knew many mortgage bankers. When it came time for him to buy a house, he arranged with a particularly sleazy banker for a very, very favorable mortgage. He was tainted. He was slimed by this deal. I couldn't trust his reporting again.


Know the rules. Follow the rules. Tell your sources the rules. If you think that you've violated the rules, tell your boss. Immediately. It could be your job. The publisher/owner can lie and cheat or, like Murdock, condone lying and cheating (UK phone hacking scandal), but the reputations of the rest of us rest on our ability to be fair. Forget objective. Rather, we need to try to be impartial and honest, but also writing with a strong point of view.

Hope this helps. If you have other questions, or need clarification, get back. For details about my background, go to www.RichardCarreno.webs.com.

All best, good luck, and until soon.