Only 1 in 5 think TV reporters have high ethical standards

I hate to be redundant, but TV News people head out the door each day in the belief that they have the public trust. They do not, and yet, we keep throwing the same old stuff at viewers. Here’s new data from Gallup. Note that just 20% of Americans feel TV reporters have high or very high standards of honesty and ethics. That’s one in five.


Now let’s switch over to TVSPY for a piece on a young reporter looking for investigative chops in the small market of Fargo. Her piece on “school security” was as cheap as one in the same market many years ago about “airport security” (or was that Duluth?). Really, people, who do we think we’re fooling? This isn’t a real investigation by anybody’s standards; it’s an attempt by the reporter to get something on her reel that will convince her future employers that she’s tough. Puh-leeze.

Do we really wonder why we’re so screwed?

CJR story brought to you by the FCC

Columbia Journalism Review logoThe Columbia Journalism Review has presented — as a news commentary — a piece indirectly written by the FCC that favors the commission’s position in a key legislative issue involving broadcasters. The piece hypocritically trashes broadcasters for the same kind of behavior it represents, and it does so using the popular buzz term “transparency.” This is a smokescreen for what’s really being conveyed.

First, a little background.

Long ago, our government decided that “the airwaves” belong to the public and, therefore, should be regulated by the public’s representatives in Washington. Licenses to “use” the public’s airwaves were granted and maintained by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and so was born an antagonistic relationship between the licensor and the licensees. Broadcasters have long held the upper hand in this antipathy. They are a powerful group with the ability to easily reach the public “back home,” where legislators raise money and votes. The National Association of Broadcasters was and is a powerful lobbying organization.

However, there’s been a recent shifting of that power, and things are a little different today. Armed with knowledge of a real demand for wireless broadband — which would use that same spectrum owned by the public — the FCC is turning up the heat on broadcasters. This will evolve to an all-out war that threatens the core value of all of broadcasting, and as the number of people receiving TV via those airwaves alone dwindles, the case of the whole industry weakens. We’re in a season when broadcasters can extract value two ways: through subscriber revenues from cable providers and via advertising based on reach, at least some of which is over-the-air. As a group, therefore, broadcasters must promote both, and that hands the FCC an industry with a split focus to regulate. The FCC, however, cares mostly about that spectrum.

We can argue that cord-cutting raises the value of that over-the-air signal — especially in high-definition — but the longer technicians are able to innovate and resolve compression and other hi-def delivery problems, the more viable TV over IP becomes, and so we must admit that broadcasting’s “cake and eat it too” has a limited window. Broadcasters are well aware of this “problem,” and are working on so-called solutions that limit broadcast signals over IP to those geographic regions determined by broadcast licenses, thereby maintaining the old status quo. The weakness of one solution supported by the NAB and big broadcast companies (Syncbak) is that it requires the broadcast signal to verify geographic position within the market. This will be a hard proposition to sell Congress or the FCC as pressure mounts for broadband spectrum.

It’s into this scenario that an advisor to the FCC Chairman was begun writing what I would call “attack pieces” published in the Columbia Journalism Review. What or who is being attacked? Broadcasting, specifically television. It would be untoward for me to suggest that this is a deliberate effort to cloud the picture of the FCC versus broadcasting, but it does strike me as odd that such vertically-slanted stories would be published in the high church of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Steve Waldman is the writer/advisor, and his latest (This News Story Is Brought to You By…) is about how some television stations “allow sponsors to dictate content” within or close to newscasts. Mr. Waldman was the lead author of the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities study, which challenged broadcasters and helped lay the groundwork for the above arguments about the best use of spectrum.

One of Mr. Waldman’s major concerns in the CJR article is the use by certain television stations of video news releases disguised as news stories or other methods that those with a position employ to escape the wall of separation between news and advertising via the public’s airwaves. In making this charge in the Columbia Journalism Review, however, Mr. Waldman is guilty of the exact crime of which he accuses broadcasters, namely the presentation of a government position paper as news or commentary. I find it astonishing that the CJR would permit this, and yet, there it is.

That said, Mr. Waldman’s point is well-taken and broadcasters most certainly should be following the law and clearly labeling such as sponsored. But so should the Columbia Journalism Review, for this piece was surely presented — however indirectly — by the FCC.

The ethics of hyperconnected media

My ethics class, fall 2010Most of you know that I teach media ethics at the University of North Texas. I do it to be around young people and their thinking, because it keeps me fresh. We should all be so lucky. The course is actually titled: Ethical Decision-Making in the Media, but I call it “Ethics for Journalism in a Networked World.” I do so, because they are different subjects, and the latter is what is required of anybody entering (or in) the field these days.

I’m writing about this today, because the question of ethics has been raised in the story of the firing of NPR’s Juan Williams over statements he made on his other job as a commentator on Fox News. An internal investigation by NPR resulted in one long-time employee resigning and an announcement that the network was reviewing its ethics policies. This has the usual head-scratchers scratching their heads. Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote that NPR isn’t the only news organization in need of modern, realistic ethics guidelines for its journalists, and I agree. Why? Because things are changing.

Journalism is a profession rife with stars who get away with a lot. And in this new environment, stars tend to have more opportunities than ever, while newsrooms leaders don’t always have the resources to pay their stars enough money to lock them down exclusively or the time to manage their potential conflicts of interest and competing loyalties.

The climate has changed a whole bunch,” Bill Marimow told me Friday in a phone conversation. Besides once being a senior news executive at NPR, he was editor of The (Baltimore) Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In some cases, people who were truly outstanding become almost like franchises,” said Marimow…

The problem with these kinds of dissections is that they cling to tradition as a guide. That’s evident when Ms. McBride gets into solutions.

I’ve no doubt that they will have significant discussions about how journalists uphold traditional standards while they thrive and stay relevant in the modern world.

It will be tough to write guidelines that allow the rock stars of journalism to pursue opportunity and extend their influence, while preserving their primary loyalty to one central newsroom. “They have to get the language just right,” Marimow said.

Here we have the essential conflict, and it’s why I’ve chosen to teach media ethics at the university. The conflict is between the individual and the stage (one central newsroom). Remembering for a minute that the stage is all about economics and providing an environment conducive to advertising — this is exactly what it is — here’s what I teach my students:

The stage is what matters to traditional media, the driver of its pursuit of “impartiality.” An impartial stage, after all, is home to all, including advertisers. This is no accident.

Journalistic ethics are all about the impartiality of the stage, not the individual journalists. Without an impartial stage, advertisers will bolt, so the decision is about business.

The people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) expect an impartial stage. Why? Because we’ve told them it’s supposed to be that way. The problem is that people don’t believe it anymore.

Without a stage, there is no institutional wall of ethical protection. One, therefore, cannot pretend to be what one is not. This is the truth and the challenge of ethics in a networked world.

The stage says, “I am impartial.”

The individual says, “I’m trying to be fair.”

Artificiality is a curse in the Network.

Your personal brand is everything.

And so, I prepare ethical dilemmas based on scenarios where individuals have to make decisions based on their own brands, which is very different than learning to protect the artificial marketing of the stage. These people will go forward into the hyperconnected universe and do good, ethical work, and not because they follow a set of elitist canons that are in conflict with the culture. Why we cling to this as an industry is beyond me.

The biggest practical difference between one practicing journalism from a stage versus a personal brand has everything to do with the role of publisher-journalist. Business and journalism aren’t separate entities with those who run their own brands, and that’s where the ethical admonitions of industrial age journalism become impossible today. Conflicts of interest must be handled transparently and not be avoided altogether. This, I believe, is where NPR made its mistake.

Ironically, I find many of our old ethical beliefs to be in sync with today, things like accuracy, verification, and fairness. To these have been added, however, speed, transparency, and authenticity. We’re still discovering what all of it means, and until we get there, we’re going to have problems like Juan Williams or telling people that a congresswoman is dead when she’s not.

Meanwhile, let’s not be silent.

New media ethics: TechCrunch, a case study

The ethics of journalism are being rewritten, as that which is new advances. There are basically two forms of ethical conduct in the press today. One espouses a traditional set of canons and exists with self-restraint as a guide. In this world, objectivity — or attempts at objectivity — are the norm, for balance and fairness are the goals. Here, truth is presented as existing between two or more “sides” to stories. In the second world, however, transparency replaces objectivity in the belief that the audience can determine bias and figure out where the writer is coming from. In this view, objectivity is a farce and truth determination is up to the reader.

Much has been written and said this week about NPR firing “news analyst” Juan Williams for comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Williams is only the most recent firing for something like this, and I expect to see many more.

That’s because there is a great struggle between the two ethical perspectives today, with traditional journalism seemingly unable to grasp the other point of view. So today, I want to give you an example of how it works.

Michael ArringtonMichael Arrington is the top guy at TechCrunch, a blog-format publication tracking news in the world of technology. This includes reviewing new products, new companies and basically standing between Silicon Valley’s companies and the people who buy and use its products. Arrington has great sources and breaks many stories, and he often inserts himself in the stories he covers. He’s a very influential guy in the world of tech, and he operates under his own rules of transparency when it comes to ethics. I’ve come to know him as an ethical person, meaning I trust what he writes, although I know where he’s coming from.

This week, Arrington wrote a piece called Damnit Amex, Give Me A Credit Card. The story fit within the scope of tech news, because he used the software of a new company called Credit Karma to reveal that while he had zero debt and paid his bills on time, he wasn’t “qualified” for the American Express card he wanted. Many would argue that such a piece is way outside the boundaries of what journalistic ethics should allow. I mean, here he was tweaking American Express for a credit card. However, this is part and parcel of TechCrunch, for what better way for Arrington to relate to his readers and for his readers to relate to him than by bringing personal experience into the story?

Ironically, Amex is a TechCrunch advertiser, and wouldn’t you know it, an ad for an Amex card appeared right next to Arrington’s story. Oh my, the sales department must have winced at that one.

Amex ad next to TechCrunch story on Amex

A few hours later, Arrington revealed via Twitter that he’d gotten a call from American Express and that they were giving him the credit card. Nice. The power of the press, right? The reason this works for Arrington is that this is exactly who he is, and his readers know it and are completely comfortable with it. He hides nothing and pretends nothing. What you see is what you get. Welcome to the new world of journalism ethics.

Michael Arrington's tweet

Then, today, Arrington revealed in another post that the ad agency representing American Express has sent them an email trying to strong arm him into pulling the original article. The email foolishly threatened TechCrunch:

If you are not able to monitor this more closely, we unfortunately will not be able to run with TechCrunch in the future.”

So Arrington — in all his transparent glory — published this for all to see, and now American Express REALLY looks like a bunch of idiots. Arrington explains:

First of all, the agency in question should understand that the post was a significant net positive for American Express. Sure, I was complaining. But I also put American Express’ brand squarely in the center of things. There were a variety of credit cards that I was unable to get, but the Amex Starwood card was the one I wanted. I wanted it, and I couldn’t get it. Who doesn’t get how great that is for Amex?

Paleolithic marketing morons who can’t think outside of a box, that’s who. The same kind of person that not only gets upset that their client is the center of attention, but then actually threatens to pull business if we don’t get our editorial in line with their agenda. This isn’t the Wall Street Journal, you know. We don’t like being told by others what we can and cannot write.

TechCrunch IS Michael Arrington, beginning just five years ago as his blog. It carries his persona, and the views of its writers are understood by those who make up its audience. Not only does it work, but it produces the kind of compelling, relevant, and involved kind of news that traditional journalism would love to create, but can’t, because it follows the ethics of a bygone age. We’ve entered an era of personal branding and argument-laden prose that helps people figure out life around them through their surrogates, the men and women who bare their lives and views for all to judge.

Those of us in traditional media should not be surprised as this bubbles up beneath us. It certainly would be a minefield, if we suddenly attempted something like this ourselves, but in the end, we must acknowledge that people long ago began judging us and our behavior by turning away. The idea of protecting a media brand — so that a sterile environment could be maintained for the sale of advertising — is becoming less and less practical where audiences aren’t captive, so perhaps the time is ripe. I certainly wouldn’t bet the ranch on it happening soon, however, so we’re going to cede audience (and relevance) some day to those who come up from outside the reach of the mainstream. The drumbeats are clear to those with ears to hear.

There is tremendous pressure today on J-schools in teaching ethical conduct, and those who do not address the culture war are doomed to a slow and painful death as the people formerly known as the audience assume control. I feel qualified to say that, because I teach ethics at UNT, and I promise you that my students all understand what’s going on.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

Why Fox can’t just admit it

Fox News logoSlate has published a wonderful deconstruction of the lawsuit by Fox News to stop Missouri’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Robin Carnahan, from using Fox file footage in her ads. Fox argues that her use of the footage hurts the reputation of its news business for accuracy and objectivity. The problem is that Carnahan’s opponent also uses Fox News footage, but the Republican isn’t being sued.

I read this stuff and wonder again why Fox just doesn’t admit that theirs is a network that supports Republicans and issues of the right. That wonder doesn’t last long, because the reason is a familiar one (this was our view at CBN): Fox takes the position that the established press is biased and they are fair and balanced. To prove this proposition, Fox News believes that by simply including the point-of-view of the right, they’re providing “we report, you decide.” It may seem like “bias” to others, the thinking goes, because the average citizen is used to only hearing one side — the liberal side.

This is all well and good (and logical) until something like this lawsuit happens. Suddenly, the BS of it all is revealed, but Fox cannot risk simply admitting its bias, because to do so would disprove their marketing position. How? If Fox admits bias, then others can claim the middle ground. If Fox would admit a position of extreme on the right, it would be “balanced” by extremes on the left, and the traditional press could then claim the center. Fox cannot allow this to happen.

There’s also the matter of audience expectations. Your audience can’t “fight” on behalf of your position, if you admit it’s otherwise.

I don’t think there’s any question about what’s happening with Fox, but I don’t think you’ll ever hear anybody from Fox News admit it.

The ambush of Craig Newmark

When we look around and try to figure out why people don’t trust us (the press) anymore, the first stop we need to make is the mirror. There’s no conspiracy. By our own actions and behaviors, we have made it nigh onto impossible for people to trust us. Witness the case of Craig Newmark and CNN.

Craig NewmarkI first met Craig Newmark in San Francisco in 2005. The occasion was a blog meet-up hosted by KRON-TV. Craig is “the Craig” of Craigslist, the free classifieds juggernaut that has had much to do with the financial woes of the newspaper industry. We spent time talking and have exchanged a few emails since, but I know enough of Craig to appreciate the gentle, self-effacing nature of his persona. He’s genuinely a nice guy, and I’ll admit an up-front bias about him.

Craig Newmark has very little to do with the operation of Craigslist, having hired a CEO, Jim Buckmaster, who has been running the company for the last ten years. Craig is on the board (of course) and hangs around in customer service, because — and again, this is his nature — he genuinely likes people and being in a position to help. He has used the resources given him in philanthropy, and not just because he can. This is simply Craig Newmark.

So it was with interest this week that I’ve read of an ambush interview by CNN’s Amber Lyon that Craig endured concerning the salacious story of people advertising for sex on Craigslist. There’s really nothing new about the story itself, but Ms. Lyon turned it into an “investigation” and cornered Craig after a speech in Washington on veteran’s affairs, one of his causes. Ambushing Craig Newmark is a little like deer-spotting, it shouldn’t be allowed, because it’s too easy.

She pummeled him with questions about why Craigslist supports sex slavery and child rapists. He froze. I’m not surprised, knowing Craig.

This week, he wrote about what the experience was like, and it’s a pretty insightful view of how it feels to have a camera stuck in your face.

As old time craigslisters know, I’m a hard-wired nerd with symptoms I’m told border on Asperger’s Syndrome. That means I’m too trusting, often socially inept, have difficulty shifting focus, and frequently am unsure what to do in situations others handle easily. And I don’t have a normal person’s ability to sense when someone might be looking to take advantage of these shortcomings…

…If Amber had done her homework, she would have known ambushing me with questions I am not qualified to answer, or even the right person to ask, would not get CNN’s viewers the accurate information they deserve.

So I should have said, “Hey, thanks, but Jim’s the guy your viewers should hear from.” Instead, I froze and looked clueless, and, worse than that, uncaring. Clueless I definitely am sometimes, but not uncaring…

…Amber, CNN, and others are depicting Jim and I as profiteers oblivious to the welfare of women and children. Anyone that’s followed us over all these years knows that’s not at all what we’re about. In reality, we’re both pretty obsessed with trying to make the world a better place, and neither have much interest in possessions or fancy lifestyles.

Ms. Lyon, meanwhile, has been bragging about the event as if she’d scored some major scoop. Here’s what her bio says on the matter:

Lyon also investigated the sex trafficking of minors on Craigslist. In a CNN exclusive, Lyon brought her findings to the “Craig” in Craigslist, founder Craig Newmark. Her interview left Newmark speechless.

In the minds of everybody who knows Craig, myself included, and those who’ve been following this story via blogs and Twitter, Ms. Lyon’s purpose in ambushing Craig was self-promotion, hyperbole to position herself as hard-edged. She may honestly feel that she did a great thing here with her “investigation,” but the lesson for us to learn is that just because we feel that way doesn’t necessarily mean that our audience does.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmeister later posted a blog entry of his own, taking Ms. Lyon and CNN to task. Apparently, she has now requested an interview with him.

You knew Craig was not in management or a company spokesperson, but setting CNN’s ethical code aside, you sidestepped company channels in favor of ambushing our semi-retired founder, complete with a misleading “set up” for your surprise questions. Now that CNN has aired your highly misleading piece dozens of times, mischaracterizing your stunt as a serious interview on this subject, and you’ve updated your “bio” to showcase this rare jewel of investigative journalism, you’re ready to try actually interviewing the company itself on this subject.

There is a class of “journalists” known for gratuitously trashing respected organizations and individuals, ignoring readily available facts in favor of rank sensationalism and self-promotion. They work for tabloid media. Your stunt has veteran news pros we know recoiling in journalistic horror, some of them chalking it up to a decline in CNN’s standards, which is unfortunate.

Seeing how you’ve pinned your career hopes on butchering this story, I’ll have to pass.

The decline in press trust in the U.S. began in 1976, after Watergate. I’ve said many times that the thirst to be the next Woodward and Bernstein has driven us to do some things of questionable ethics as we go about our daily chores, and this, perhaps more than anything else, has driven people away. Amber Lyon got exactly what she was seeking when she chose to ambush Craig Newmark, and it had nothing to do with reporting.

Shame on us.

(Originally published in this week’s AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)