In the public interest

How’s it going?

I know: It’s been a very long time since I’ve blogged. I’m blaming my silence on the length of time it has taken me to get a sense of journalism in the UK, and what I might want to say about it.

Recently, I sat in on a panel discussion at the City University of London about the Leveson Inquiry, which is looking into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press.” It’s the direct result of the phone hacking scandal, which I’m sure you know something about. (If you need to play catchup on this, the Guardian, which broke the story, has created an excellent landing page for this subject.)

In a nutshell, what happened is that journalists for Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers were exposed for bribing police and hacking into people’s cell phone voice mails to get stories. The testimony at the Leveson Inquiry has focused on a couple of particularly gruesome examples of this kind of conduct.

The one that disturbed me the most, I would say, is the case of the McCanns, the English couple whose daughter was abducted from their holiday rental apartment in Portugal. (One of Murdoch’s newspapers published Mrs. McCann’s diary, which it apparently had purchased from Portuguese police.) The tabloids in particular subjected this family to the worst “blame the victim” journalism I have ever seen. They persuaded a large portion of the reading public that the McCanns either killed or sold their own daughter. That belief has persisted, by the way.

But let’s get back to that panel discussion. What surprised me most was how readily — because of the terrible, damaging stories that are routinely published here — the journalists and educators in attendance would agree to government regulation in some form. After all, many pointed out, British journalists have failed to regulate themselves effectively.

I kept my mouth shut during the Q and A. But what I would have said, in good old, colloquial American English, is this: “Y’all are in some tall weeds, here, if you think the obvious solution is government regulation.”

I didn’t say it because I couldn’t offer an alternative solution. At least not at that moment.

The British press has some very big problems, very much like our own in the U.S. Reportedly three of the four major newspaper companies here are losing money — a lot of money. Similar pressures are coming to bear: the digital revolution, readership and advertising revenue declines, and the recession.

Meanwhile, the highest circulation paper in the country — and one of the largest circulation papers in the world — is the tabloid, The Sun. Millions of people each day gobble up its lurid mix of sex and gossip. (Typical headline: “Quality of UK pole dancers on the slide.”) Yes, millions.

So, if people are buying the bad journalism, what are purveyors of good journalism to do?   The “one bad apple” (okay, two or three) has rotted the whole barrel, in the public’s estimation. Good journalists seem open to regulation of all journalism, in the vain hope, I believe, that they can get the tabs to clean up their act.

Right. This guy?

Tabloids in the U.S. are marginalized, so we part ways with our English cousins there. But I have wondered many times in recent weeks why our system of self regulation in the U.S. seems to be effective, most of the time. (Well, at least we journalists think it’s effective; the public isn’t so sure, but more about that in a second.) We have the occasional plagiarism scandal. And from time to time, a fabulist will be unmasked.

But if journalists are paying for information, hacking into voice mail and breaking the law to get stories, I’m out of the loop about that.

I have looked for the differences, and I found this one: Many journalists here do not attend a journalism school before plying their trade. Some of them go to Cambridge and get jobs at The Economist, like David Rennie, who spoke to my class last week. Some of them go work for the tabs.

And the pressure to come up with something no one else has at any cost is very high at the tabloids. The pressure comes from management, which is keenly aware of how competitive the tabloid newspaper market is here. (Is it possible there are just too many papers in London?)

And many journalists here will tell you that no one has ever used the term “journalistic ethics” with them in their newsrooms. “It’s just common sense,” one said.

Still — despite our pretty careful adherence to ethical standards in U.S. journalism — the public doesn’t hold us in very high esteem. We’re somewhere in the 20 percent approval rating range. (I can’t find a survey of the British public’s regard for the press; if you can locate one, please post it in the comments.)

Our readership is alienated from us for various reasons. Being here has confirmed some of my beliefs about what we have to stop doing and keep doing to improve our relationship with readers. Most of these are old news.

  1. We have to stop boring people. The popularity of the tabs here is no mystery: They entertain. They are full of crap, but it doesn’t matter to their readers. (Ruht-roh.) We don’t want to take this too far because informing the public is serious business in a democracy. But we could do with a little less taking ourselves so seriously.
  2. We have to get off our high horses and listen better. Enough said.
  3. We need to continue to push hard for stories in the public interest. Rennie, with the Economist, said we U.S. journalists have to stop thinking of ourselves as so fancy. Actually, he used the term “reputable.” We should glory in our disreputableness because it’s an important part of our job, he said. What he meant was that we should relish our outsider status so that we can challenge the gatekeepers when they tell us what we can’t report. It doesn’t mean being rude; it does mean being stubborn and relentless on the reader’s behalf.

We U.S. journalists have our share of problems. But the ethical framework within which we operate has not collapsed. We do not face the imminent spectre of government regulation.

We face becoming irrelevant and unnecessary. The Brits would probably say I’m being utterly American — that is, overly optimistic — about this, but I think we’re getting a handle on that.

But do we talk enough about journalistic ethics, the how and the why? That’s a question for you to answer, now that your first semester as a reporter is nearing a conclusion.

What do you think?

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One Response to In the public interest

  1. Journalism ethics has been a topic in ever single journalism class I have taken at MU, and I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously as journalists. We have a responsibility to deliver the news truthfully to our readers. Perhaps if we had a reputation that a tabloid has, we would be taking ourselves too seriously. But bottom line is we have a reputation to maintain as U.S. journalists. Our work represents not only our own reputation, but also the reputation of the publication we write for.

    As a U.S. journalist, I do not feel pressured to come up with something no one else has because that is what news is. Information is only considered newsworthy when people are interested in reading it. Yes, I would love to come up with a fantastic idea that no other journalist has ever considered, win a Pulitzer Prize and so on. But I am not willing to throw away my reputation or my credibility to do so.

    The fact that one of Murdoch’s papers published this abducted girl’s diary is very disappointing. I say I am disappointed because whether or not these “journalists” went to a journalism school or not, they are still considered journalists, and therefore in the same professional field as I am. If the U.S. press ever gets so desperate for news to pay off police to publish a young girl’s diary only to write “blame the victim” journalism, I want no part of it. Perhaps the U.S. press does take themselves too seriously, but I would rather work as a professional journalist than practice unethical, unlawful, corrupt journalism.

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