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 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.
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.
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)