Journalism Ethics in the 86,400-second News Cycle


The devil made me do it.

It is difficult to imagine the ethical journey for journalists who would authorize hacking into a missing teenage girl’s mobile phone in order to scour the content for a salacious headline.

Worse is when these same journalists then delete messages from a full voicemail box so that additional messages could be left behind – giving false hope to the girl’s frantic family that she was still alive.  The 13-year-old girl, however, was later found murdered.

These same journalists at the News of the World now stand accused of hacking into the mobile phones of victims killed in the 2005 London terrorist bombing.

This is the basis of a scandal rocking the U.K. and Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid News of the World – the biggest selling English language newspaper in the world.  The scandal has led to Murdoch announcing plans to shutter the 168-year-old newspaper.

As Salon’s Alex Pareene notes about Murdoch’s tabloid style:

“The basic formula hasn’t changed: rabid right-wing politics, sexy girls, constant bellowing outrage, celebrity scandal and a general disregard for journalistic ethics. That News Corp culture — prizing scoops above all else, from basic human decency to, sometimes, truth itself — is what has led to the “phone hacking” scandal that now consumes the U.K.”

While the News of the World would never be held up as an example of sterling journalistic integrity one can’t help but wonder about another possible factor: our 86,400-second news cycle.

The pressure on journalists these days is tremendous.  The industry is still reeling from the Great Media Collapse in 2008-09 where more than 30,000 journalists were axed.  The industry continues to shrink with more than 2,800 lay-offs last year and more than a thousand job cuts so far this year, according to the newspaper lay-off tracker service Paper Cuts.

This means fewer journalists – with less experience – doing more work.

Technology, especially on the web, has increased deadline pressure to outrageous extremes.  Forget daily deadlines or even hourly ones – news is breaking each and every second of the 86,400 seconds in every day.  Journalists no longer have to worry about filing stories for their news broadcasts or newspapers, but writing for the web, updating news blogs, recording video content for web features and YouTube and providing updates for Twitter and Facebook.

News comes in streams now and those streams move fast.

The pressure for new information – for a new angle is fierce.  Competition no longer comes only from other journalists, but from citizen journalists updating their own blogs and social networks.  Half of Americans now rely on their own social networks to provide them with news, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project.  Eyewitnesses who once told all to a journalists now save the good nuggets for their own self-publishing efforts.

Everyone is a reporter, but few are truly journalists.

These new citizen journalists don’t adhere to the same ethical standards as traditional journalists – in fact many of them may never have been trained as journalists.  Many balk at embargoes, print off-the-record conversations, publish stolen documents or photos and even make up facts.

With all of these factors putting additional pressure on traditional journalists is it any wonder that some of them are relying on underhanded and unethical practices?  Is the News of the World scandal an anomaly or is it a harbinger of a new era of yellow journalism? Do you still trust journalists and journalism?

Links:

CNN coverage of News of the World scandal

ABC News on closing of News of the World

Salon piece on the scandal

Paper Cuts

Pew Research study: “New Media, Old Media”

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