Journalistic Ethics (Part I)

 

Note: This post was prompted by fellow member @bryangstephens, with whom I have had an on-going discussion spread over a vast number of unrelated threads concerning the nature of the press, the First Amendment and their role in American politics. 

Between the Civil War and the Great Depression, virtually every decent-sized American city had at least two newspapers. In addition to the popular press, many communities also had papers of ethnic or racial focus. Some of those papers, such as the Pittsburgh Courier, became influential outside of their areas of ownership and became important voices nationally. The Courier’s Wendell Smith was instrumental in helping Branch Rickey break baseball’s color barrier with the elevation of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The one thing that these papers were not were unbiased reporters of straight news. On Wikipedia’s list of defunct newspapers (dailies which published for ten years or more), 32 of them contained the name “Democrat” and 19 of them the word “Republican.” And there are survivors still, such as the Plattsburgh (NY) Press-Republican and the Little Rock Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. They were all tied to their respective political parties and acted accordingly on their pages.

What prompted the change? When did “reporters” evolve into “journalists,” and when did the need for objectivity become paramount?

I think you can trace it to a series of events, some of them political and others economic.

In 1900, there were no such things as J-Schools, but by the end of WWI all of the nation’s most prominent journalism schools had been established. When the economics of newspapers really began to change, those that considered themselves professional journalists were taking over the management ranks. The bigger and more vibrant newspapers that survived the Great Depression moderated their overt politics to accommodate the new readers that they gained when their rivals folded and shut down their printing presses.

The Depression was bad enough, but the rise of broadcasting and motion pictures added to the financial pressures put on newspaper ownership. Publishers were at the forefront of obtaining broadcast licenses. For example, the WGN call letters were short for the World’s Greatest Newspaper, the slogan of their owners – the Chicago Tribune. Thus they embraced the “broad” in broadcasting. The Tribune, which endorsed Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Republican Party (it would not endorse a Democrat for president until 2008) began confining its politics to the editorial page.

As early as 1940, Congress became interested in limiting media ownership. The wall that these new professional journalists put between the front page and the editorial page was enough to stave off cross-ownership rules for another 35 years.

Congress was also spooked by the rise of fascism in Europe. The 1949 “Fairness Doctrine” was ostensibly designed to promote balanced debate on controversial and important topics presented on radio and television but instead had the opposite effect, producing a Sunday morning ghetto of bad talk shows with horrible sets and absolutely no audience. It only generated one piece of significant 1st Amendment jurisprudence, Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC, in which the Supreme Court upheld limits to speech supposedly protected by the First Amendment because broadcast spectrum was limited.

By the 1980s the Reagan Administration looked at the rise of cable television and began to question those limitations. And if cable made the Fairness Doctrine obsolete, surely the internet has embalmed the corpse, incinerated it and buried it for good measure. So, why should the walls between editorial and news remain? Why shouldn’t we accept the fact the natural order of things in the American media has returned to its partisan roots?

What is more ethical? For a reporter to operate under some false illusion of objectivity, or present their true political selves so that you can judge the veracity of the information they’re selling you?

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and ask if they really apply in today’s media landscape. 

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  1. DonG (CAGW is a Scam) Coolidge
    DonG (CAGW is a Scam)
    @DonG

    Newspapers used to be explicitly partisan and their income came from wealthy patrons and sales.  Then thing switched to advertising and the business model necessitated a switch to “non-partisan” stance.  Now ad sales are lagging and newspapers have decided to go implicitly partisan. Some writers and readers have not fully caught up to the new reality.   For journalists to claim they are non-partisan, when they are means they are really just propagandists, which have different ethics than journalists.

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    When I was a kid, The New York Times was already a liberal paper, but The New York Herald-Tribune was a strong Republican competitor. The Trib ended around 1964 or so.

    Back then the tabloid NY Daily News had a populist streak that made it reliably conservative 364 days a year. The one day it wasn’t is when they’d make their editorial recommendations for the upcoming election, and then they’d inexplicably urge you to vote Democrat. It was schizophrenic, but it went on for decades. Eventually, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid New York Post seized the populist banner, and the Daily News, no longer schizoid, became openly pro-liberal. 

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    EJHill: So, why should the walls between editorial and news remain? Why shouldn’t we accept the fact the natural order of things in the American media have returned to its partisan roots?

    I’d be fine with this, if the News(tm) would just admit they are biased. 

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Very good information. Thank you. 

    • #4
  5. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    What is more ethical?  To present their true political selves so that the reader can judge for himself. The other option means they are lying to their readers. 

    Most (with some notable exceptions, mostly involving DJT) of what I read in the local fish wrap is factually true; the bias lies in how the facts are presented/framed in the article. Larger influences in bias are the editorial choices made on which story to cover or ignore and the style guide provided by the paper (e.g. J6 must always be called an insurrection). 

    • #5
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Back in the Cold War, I used to travel to eastern Europe and the USSR. My friends would ask, “Don’t they realize their press is full of lies?” The answer was yes, sort of. But just because they’d lie about anything didn’t mean they were lying about everything. If the Washington Post says that today 450 tons of debris was removed from Baltimore harbor, I believe them. If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them. 

    • #6
  7. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them. 

    That could also be technically true, if they think that maybe 5% or whatever is “substantial.”  And especially if those 5% expressed that opinion after being told that Key was just another old white European slave-owner or something.

    • #7
  8. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Some Call Me …Tim: Most (with some notable exceptions, mostly involving DJT) of what I read in the local fish wrap is factually true; the bias lies in how the facts are presented/framed in the article. Larger influences in bias are the editorial choices made on which story to cover or ignore and the style guide provided by the paper (e.g. J6 must always be called an insurrection).

    What’s the local?

    • #8
  9. Globalitarian Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    EJHill: So, why should the walls between editorial and news remain? Why shouldn’t we accept the fact the natural order of things in the American media have returned to its partisan roots?

    I’d be fine with this, if the News(tm) would just admit they are biased.

    And state their biases.

    • #9
  10. Globalitarian Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    What is more ethical? To present their true political selves so that the reader can judge for himself. The other option means they are lying to their readers.

    Most (with some notable exceptions, mostly involving DJT) of what I read in the local fish wrap is factually true; the bias lies in how the facts are presented/framed in the article. Larger influences in bias are the editorial choices made on which story to cover or ignore and the style guide provided by the paper (e.g. J6 must always be called an insurrection).

    And one particular president must be referred to as a “former” president.

    • #10
  11. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    You should have called this “History of Journalistic Ethics, Part 1” and included a musical number with “nuns.”

     

    • #11
  12. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Some Call Me …Tim: Most (with some notable exceptions, mostly involving DJT) of what I read in the local fish wrap is factually true; the bias lies in how the facts are presented/framed in the article. Larger influences in bias are the editorial choices made on which story to cover or ignore and the style guide provided by the paper (e.g. J6 must always be called an insurrection).

    What’s the local?

    The Times-Picayune (The New Orleans Advocate).  It’s got two names because the original paper ( The T-P) was bought by John Georges, a local businessman who owns The Advocate in Baton Rouge, when the owners of the T-P wanted to close it down. 

    The T-P is immortalized as The Statesman-Picaroon in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. 

    • #12
  13. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Some Call Me …Tim: The Times-Picayune (The New Orleans Advocate).

    I seriously doubt the T-P-N-O-A has an official policy on referring to the events of January 6, 2021.

    They most likely to defer to the AP Style Guide which states:

    Considering that armed protesters broke into the building, overwhelmed Capitol police, interrupted the process of certifying Electoral College votes and forced the evacuation of the vice president of the United States and members of Congress, “protest” may be too mild a word for the action without surrounding it with strong adjectives and context, such as “violent protest” or “rioting protesters.” Calling it a “mob” or a “riot” would also be appropriate, especially when the protesters’ actions were wild, widespread, violent and uncontrolled. The term “insurrection,” meaning the act of rising up against established authority, could also be justified.

    NOT A COUP: Some people and broadcasters are calling the protesters’ action a “coup” or a “coup attempt,” meaning a sudden, organized seizure of political power or an attempt by a faction or group to seize political power suddenly outside of the law. We may of course quote others alleging a coup or attempted coup, but so far AP has not seen conclusive evidence that the protesters’ specific aim was to take over the government, so at this stage we are avoiding the term in AP copy unless attributed.

    • #13
  14. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    It’s often not a matter of willfully contorting or slanting the news. Most of the old-line journos believe they are objective, but this comes with an unstated belief that liberal views are objectively correct, because they are based in Goodness and Empathy and sensible, rational, empirically correct technocratic programs that increase equality,  fairness, and progress. As I said, the old-line ones. 

    The newer breed, from what I’ve read, are more explicitly progressive, and regard objectivity as an obstacle to Progress. The newer breed, from what I’ve experienced, are progressive and enthusiastic about bringing the pet progressive projects into their reporting. They don’t slant the story, but they slant the general product with their topic selection, elevating the trivial in the name of Inclusion.

    In both cases, the world-view shapes the coverage in general. It’s exacerbated by reliance on wire  services that have the same problem – unexamined biases, echo-chamber topic selection, AP guidelines that have certain assumptions baked in as truths. 

    NB: I have been a conservative in a newsroom for 34 years

    • #14
  15. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Back in the Cold War, I used to travel to eastern Europe and the USSR. My friends would ask, “Don’t they realize their press is full of lies?” The answer was yes, sort of. But just because they’d lie about anything didn’t mean they were lying about everything. If the Washington Post says that today 450 tons of debris was removed from Baltimore harbor, I believe them. If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them.

    Good distinction. The imperative to be factually correct about things like this is all-consuming. Corrections are humiliating, and getting hauled on the carpet for getting it wrong is every reporter’s dread. 

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Back in the Cold War, I used to travel to eastern Europe and the USSR. My friends would ask, “Don’t they realize their press is full of lies?” The answer was yes, sort of. But just because they’d lie about anything didn’t mean they were lying about everything. If the Washington Post says that today 450 tons of debris was removed from Baltimore harbor, I believe them. If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them.

    Good distinction. The imperative to be factually correct about things like this is all-consuming. Corrections are humiliating, and getting hauled on the carpet for getting it wrong is every reporter’s dread.

    Does that even happen, anymore?  With the NPR story they literally were ignoring they got it wrong to hurt a politician they did not like.

    It seems to me today the biggest sin is making a Democrat look bad. Or letting a Republican have an Op Ed

    • #16
  17. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Bryan G. Stephens: Does that even happen, anymore?  With the NPR story they literally were ignoring they got it wrong to hurt a politician they did not like.

    It does. And sometimes the progressives call themselves out. 

    The best example of that would be the Rolling Stone UVA campus rape story and the way the Washington Post absolutely eviscerated them for it. It had all the progressive touchstones: All men are potential rapists, all women are victims of the patriarchy, etc., etc..

    Another would be the way Brian Ross’ career at ABC imploded over the Michael Flynn story that Trump had ordered him to cooperate with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. Although, to be fair, Ross’ career at both NBC and ABC was a bit of a dumpster fire and he should have been shown the door a lot sooner than he was.

     

    • #17
  18. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens: Does that even happen, anymore? With the NPR story they literally were ignoring they got it wrong to hurt a politician they did not like.

    It does. And sometimes the progressives call themselves out.

    The best example of that would be the Rolling Stone UVA campus rape story and the way the Washington Post absolutely eviscerated them for it. It had all the progressive touchstones: All men are potential rapists, all women are victims of the patriarchy, etc., etc..

    Another would be the way Brian Ross’ career at ABC imploded over the Michael Flynn story that Trump had ordered him to cooperate with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. Although, to be fair, Ross’ career at both NBC and ABC was a bit of a dumpster fire and he should have been shown the door a lot sooner than he was.

     

    Those seem to be the few and far between examples. I could come up with many more where it does not. 

     

    • #18
  19. GlennAmurgis Coolidge
    GlennAmurgis
    @GlennAmurgis

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Back in the Cold War, I used to travel to eastern Europe and the USSR. My friends would ask, “Don’t they realize their press is full of lies?” The answer was yes, sort of. But just because they’d lie about anything didn’t mean they were lying about everything. If the Washington Post says that today 450 tons of debris was removed from Baltimore harbor, I believe them. If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them.

    Good distinction. The imperative to be factually correct about things like this is all-consuming. Corrections are humiliating, and getting hauled on the carpet for getting it wrong is every reporter’s dread.

    Does that even happen, anymore? With the NPR story they literally were ignoring they got it wrong to hurt a politician they did not like.

    It seems to me today the biggest sin is making a Democrat look bad. Or letting a Republican have an Op Ed

    not pushing the correct narrative. The biggest issue is the news is a narrative. Story selection is the biggest item.  See Hunter’s laptop,  Kermit Gosnell and the attack on the GOP baseball practice.

    • #19
  20. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Bryan G. Stephens: Those seem to be the few and far between examples. I could come up with many more where it does not

    Not necessarily. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “You will never know what you don’t know.” Journalistic failures are very public, but the consequences of them are not. Only rarely are they so egregious that an employer feels compelled to make disciplinary matters public. 

    Only about 1 in 6 journalists in the United States are unionized, but that 17% are the ones that count. The News Guild represents writers at The NY Times, the WaPost, and staff writers at the Associated Press. All of network news talent in television is represented by SAG-AFTRA. The unions are not going to put their members’ relationships at work up to constant public scrutiny. 

    I know people feel passionately about knowing that screw ups should come with consequences but  – as public as the work is – you are not entitled to know anything about the status of any reporter and his or her employer, even if that feeds into political theories. I have friends at ESPN that were suspended for decisions that they made. Was it the network’s prerogative to suspend them? Yes. Do you have a right to know about it? No.

    • #20
  21. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens: Those seem to be the few and far between examples. I could come up with many more where it does not

    Not necessarily. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “You will never know what you don’t know.” Journalistic failures are very public, but the consequences of them are not. Only rarely are they so egregious that an employer feels compelled to make disciplinary matters public.

    Only about 1 in 6 journalists in the United States are unionized, but that 17% are the ones that count. The News Guild represents writers at The NY Times, the WaPost, and staff writers at the Associated Press. All of network news talent in television is represented by SAG-AFTRA. The unions are not going to put their members’ relationships at work up to constant public scrutiny.

    I know people feel passionately about knowing that screw ups should come with consequences but – as public as the work is – you are not entitled to know anything about the status of any reporter and his or her employer, even if that feeds into political theories. I have friends at ESPN that were suspended for decisions that they made. Was it the network’s prerogative to suspend them? Yes. Do you have a right to know about it? No.

    I guess we have to differ here. 

    I can see the unethical behavior of much of the media with my own eyes and ears. Stories that were not corrected. Clear lies being told. (Bloodbath, anyone?). It is painfully obvious that the talking heads on TV and the people running the big newspapers are unethical in their reporting based on their own ethical codes. The news screwing up is big. And, as far as I can see, most of the time, journalists who screw up are not punished or have any consequences at all. No one was fired for the Laptop story. That may have changed an election. No journalist has been punished for damage to anyone’s reputation that I can see. The NYT, CNN, NPR, MSNBC et al. all lie on a daily basis and no one is ever punished for it. If people were being suspended, it would be obvious. 

     

    • #21
  22. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    GlennAmurgis: Story selection is the biggest item.  See Hunter’s laptop,  Kermit Gosnell and the attack on the GOP baseball practice.

    And if everyone would just go to the right church and the preacher read from the right passages all would be well. 

    Never in the history of human civilization have people had more sources of information available to them than they do now. 

    • #22
  23. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them.

    That could also be technically true, if they think that maybe 5% or whatever is “substantial.” And especially if those 5% expressed that opinion after being told that Key was just another old white European slave-owner or something.

    . . . and if the survey was conducted outside the the entrance to the Department of Afro-American Studies. 

    • #23
  24. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Never in the history of human civilization have people had more sources of information available to them than they do now. 

    Never before, thanks to the techniques of mass communication, have so many listeners been so completely at the mercy of so few speakers. — Aldous Huxley (Education on the Non-Verbal Level, 1962)

    Less completely at their mercy now? Or more? The internet has increased sources exponentially, decentralizing control quite a bit but multiplying the fragmentation, detail, and global acceleration of the information explosions enveloping us.

    We try to curate our intake as selective and critical consumers of information, but it washes over us. We sift and select, then the next cycle or distraction spins us in. We’re the customers, but paying with clicks instead of pennies removes a sense of purchase. 

    To exert control over our choices we click the magnifying glass icon, almighty Search.

    Has anyone noticed how Google has deteriorated? Not just the weird political bias and woke blackification of historic images, I mean the detail and accuracy of ordinary searches. They really need to fix their algorithms. It still works, but less well. You can easily solve any little tech fail or mundane problem with a YouTube video or question, but I find myself using Bing and duckduckgo more often these days.

    “Don’t be evil” as an ethos seems to have failed them. “Have it your way,” would have been better, had the wizards deigned to borrow from the burger boys.

    It’s interesting and valuable to explore journalistic ethics, what constitues news, how editorial judgement shape coverage, fairness, balance etc. I’ve still got a Powerpoint on that. I’d assign students to pick any story (or unreported one) and expose the biases.

    The big biases may be built into each medium, each delivery system. Image vs. text; Nixon radio vs. Kennedy TV; reading penny press tiny text vs. watching USA Today; trusting social networks or news aggregators. Emotional stories with a hook into the audience have clearly triumphed over the rational, “left-brained” logical ordering of priorities.

    The Left has obsessed over “Faux News” for 28 years and never understood it. Cash not politics was Murdoch’s bias. Chase tabloid $en$ationali$m, season with occasional gravitas. An hour of Greta’s court confidantes for each minute of Krauthammer.

    But it’s been fun seeing liberals agonize over a perspective on “fair and balanced” that was completely out of their control.

     

    • #24
  25. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Some Call Me …Tim: Most (with some notable exceptions, mostly involving DJT) of what I read in the local fish wrap is factually true; the bias lies in how the facts are presented/framed in the article. Larger influences in bias are the editorial choices made on which story to cover or ignore and the style guide provided by the paper (e.g. J6 must always be called an insurrection).

    What’s the local?

    The Times-Picayune (The New Orleans Advocate). It’s got two names because the original paper ( The T-P) was bought by John Georges, a local businessman who owns The Advocate in Baton Rouge, when the owners of the T-P wanted to close it down.

    The T-P is immortalized as The Statesman-Picaroon in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

    There was also the States Item, it was the afternoon paper.

    • #25
  26. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Some Call Me …Tim: Most (with some notable exceptions, mostly involving DJT) of what I read in the local fish wrap is factually true; the bias lies in how the facts are presented/framed in the article. Larger influences in bias are the editorial choices made on which story to cover or ignore and the style guide provided by the paper (e.g. J6 must always be called an insurrection).

    What’s the local?

    The Times-Picayune (The New Orleans Advocate). It’s got two names because the original paper ( The T-P) was bought by John Georges, a local businessman who owns The Advocate in Baton Rouge, when the owners of the T-P wanted to close it down.

    The T-P is immortalized as The Statesman-Picaroon in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

    There was also the States Item, it was the afternoon paper.

    Yes. According to Wikipedia, the States Item merged with the T-P in 1980. 

    • #26
  27. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Back in the Cold War, I used to travel to eastern Europe and the USSR. My friends would ask, “Don’t they realize their press is full of lies?” The answer was yes, sort of. But just because they’d lie about anything didn’t mean they were lying about everything. If the Washington Post says that today 450 tons of debris was removed from Baltimore harbor, I believe them. If they claim that substantial numbers of Marylanders are troubled and upset that Francis Scott Key’s name was on the old bridge, I don’t believe them.

    Good distinction. The imperative to be factually correct about things like this is all-consuming. Corrections are humiliating, and getting hauled on the carpet for getting it wrong is every reporter’s dread.

    That’s sort of the problem, isn’t it? Hang on, I’ll continue this thought…

    EJHill: What is more ethical? For a reporter to operate under some false illusion of objectivity, or present their true political selves so that you can judge the veracity of the information they’re selling you?

    Both are fine in so far as we can use it as a basis for evaluation. The problem arises, however, when the claim of objectivity is made and used as a blanket defense against all criticism (this is the thought continued). No one considers it great fun to be self-critical, but if you claim a standard you have to first measure what you wrote against that standard.

    Some were taught to do this, but, I suspect, no one from a J-school in the last twenty years. 

    • #27
  28. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Another example of how Jornalists Ethics seem to be rare things 

    https://www.hollywoodintoto.com/rather-documentary-netflix/

     

    • #28
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