I just completed a column for the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW), of which I am a member. The column deals with the ethics of the news media, something that cannot be explained or contained in 500 words. Nor 1,000, or 10,000. This is a very complicated topic but one that needs to be addressed by every consumer of news and commentary. In other words you, the consumer of the news.
Your responsibilities as a consumer of news and opinion are a bit different than the journalist. Journalists, in fact, have a code of ethics developed by the Society of Professional Journalists. You may not believe this and there are some news media outlets that seem to ignore the Code of Ethics completely, but most do try to adhere to the four standards. From the SPJ Code of Ethics:
- Seek Truth and Report It – Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering reporting and interpreting information
- Minimize Harm – Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
- Act Independently – Journalist should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
- Be Accountable – Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
True journalists adhere to the SPJ’s Code, if for no other reason than to be able to claim that they are truly “fair and balanced.”
These standards hold to professional and citizen journalists, as well as to bloggers who call themselves journalists. For those who may consider themselves activist journalists – more actual biased based reporting – there is one additional standard, to discuss the opposition’s view fairly and honestly.
You, as a consumer, also have a code of ethics to follow, though more informal. The problem created by media is the blurring of the lines between news, opinion, and entertainment. This has never truer than now, when celebrities are spouting unsubstantiated opinion. That most of news we receive seems to come more from late night television, like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Leno and Letterman, from talk-radio with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, or from bloggers who show not interest in researching the facts of their stories.
In addition, the consumer seems to have a difficult time defining the term “journalist,” and not recognizing the subgroups, commentators, editorialists, photo journalist, reporters, copywriters, editors, and television anchors, as separate entities, This can lead to new problems. Saying, for example, that my commentaries found in the Columbia Missourian are “news” is not exactly correct, but it does happen. I provide insight and opinions about the news, but they are my opinions. Yet, even here, I maintain those standards of research and factual information. My opinions, based on that information are just that – my opinions, not that of the paper.
Many consumers have their own standard of journalistic ethics and possible news bias; Journalist, disclose it. For most editorialists party, issue or candidate affiliation is usually not the issue. In fact, these men and women are opinion writers and there are few who would deny that. The readers may dislike what is being said, may be opposed to the supported issue, candidate or political position, but comments made by the readers and listeners usually acknowledge the real bias. The issue is the financial considerations made by the journalist to a campaign.
The news consumer also understands, or should understand, that each news service may look at reporting the same issue or candidate from a different direction. This may appear prejudice, and sometimes it is, but more often it represents reporting from a particular view point to appease the audience demographics, which include the politics of the audience. It is a reason why Fox and MSNBC cater to such different audiences.
There also remains a pervasive belief that if it is one the radio, television, Internet or in print, it must be true, especially if that source has the same values as the consumer. (See above.) And if the report is saying something contrary to our own belief, then the reporter must be partisan, leaning toward the opposing political position. Maybe, but most likely not.
The problem here falls back to something I have touched on before, that when there are two opposing positions or facts versus beliefs presented, the listener usually falls back on belief. This happens even if the facts prove that the belief is wrong.
Conservatives and Libertarians believe that Americans need to lift themselves by their own boot straps and the government should stay the hell out of the way. Liberals and progressives believe that many Americans do need the government’s help to survive because many cannot afford the boots. Despite the fact that both arguments have flaws, neither will listen to the facts of the other and both fall back to their comfort zones – their beliefs.
In the current political climate, where the featured fight on the MMA card can be seen in the Halls of Congress, it is up to the citizens to be better informed and to be able to ask better questions without accusations or name calling. It is our ethical duty to listen better, with open ears and not second guessing the speaker. It is up to us as consumers of the news to know what real news is and what it is not; what is truly factual and what is biased; what is news and what is entertainment.
It is our moral and civic responsibility to stop standing on the curb screaming “I am right and you are wrong! Remember that and I will allow you to live,” and to start using our knowledge, our ability to think critically and our ability to listen to resolve the problems we have today wisely.
We may disagree, but each one of us may have a piece of the answer – and to know the right answer, it is our personal responsibility to be better news consumers.