– James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
If you’ve been interviewed by any news medium, if there’s a chance you’ll be interviewed any time soon, or you are likely to become the target of news media coverage or new media coverage, this discussion is for you.
The two scourges of the news media, primarily legacy media, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and news blogs, are the abusive overuse of so-called “anonymous sources,” and the routine deceptions reporters use day-to-day.
For those of you who have been interviewed, this next quote will resonate powerfully with you. For those of you about to be interviewed, read it carefully. This scenario is in your future.
New York Times columnist Janet Malcolm, in a novel she wrote called “The Journalist and the Murderer,” in 1990 made this powerful and extraordinarily truthful analysis of how reporters behave:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gain¬ing their trust and betraying them without remorse… On reading the article or book in question, (the source) has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.”
The ethics of deception is a topic specifically taught in journalism school. In Chapter 6 of the book “Doing Ethics in Journalism,” there is a strategic list that justifies a lie or deception by a journalist. Here are the rules for lying to you.
• When the information sought is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing a “great system failure” at top levels, or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.
• When all other alternatives to obtaining this same information have been exhausted.
• When the journalists involved are willing to fully and openly disclose the nature of the deception and the reasons for it to those involved, and to the public… but a long time afterwards [my words].
• When individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to fully pursue the story.
• When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.
• When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision making process in which they weigh:
o The consequences (short and long-term) of the deception on those being deceived.
o The impact on journalistic credibility.
o The motivations for their actions.
o The deceptive act in relation to their editorial mission.
o The legal implications of the action.
o The consistency of their reasoning and their action.
After having read this, I think we’d agree that this would not go over well with their mothers, much less with the targets of news lying and deception. Their rationale is that when your business is saving the world from something every day, there should be no rules.
Deception as described in the checklist above would make its use extraordinarily limited. The problem is, every interview now involves deception. The reporter knowingly withholds information; knowingly asks misleading questions whose answers are then held against the respondent. The business of lying and deception is completely out of control at every level of the news media.
In early 2013, it got so blatant simply due to competitive pressures with social media, that in just one case, the Newtown gun murders of children, media outlets all over the country were apologizing for the first several days because they got so much wrong and made so much stuff up. The parents in Newtown were complaining bitterly to all the major news outlets.
One of the reasons newspapers have almost been zeroed out as believable news sources, at least by the American public, is the fact that so many readers believe that much of the content is totally fabricated, many times supported by anonymous sources.
This leads us to talk about the second scourge: the business of making up journalistic quotes. The New York Times public editor in her October 13th editorial page column referred to the problem with anonymous sources as a “disconnect” between readers and journalists. It’s more like a Grand Canyon in reality. The New York Times should know; it, by a thousand country miles, uses anonymous sources far more than any other print or broadcast news source in the United States, and probably elsewhere as well.
The problem is, of course, it takes mindless quotes from anonymous sources to make stories actually come together. Those of us used to this happening simply refer to it as fabrication. If the headline doesn’t have a punch line, reporters and editors invent a fictitious person and dialogue that makes the joke, accusation, or indictment work.
I’ve been working with reporters on and off for nearly 40 years. I can think of maybe a dozen people in my entire career who could end a story with a pithy punch line and summary statement as most stories do. These statements, of course, are fabrications, if not of the reporter, then of the editor guiding the story into print or on to broadcast. In the view of the public editor of The Times, we all have a responsibility when it comes to anonymity. The reporter, of course, is to use it very sparingly (LOL). Editors must be more diligent in getting actual source identification (LOL). And readers have a responsibility as well, she said, and went on to point out just two stories of significance in the last 110 years that would not have gone forward were the use of anonymous sources prohibited. She’s referring, of course, to the Pentagon papers, and the Watergate burglary in 1972 which forced the resignation of President Nixon in 1974, forty years ago. She concludes by saying, “Anonymous sourcing doesn’t equal bad reporting.” I’ve generally learned that two or more negatives in the same sentence means the person is probably lying, or certainly making something up.
The truly urgent problem with both of these now standard media behaviors, deception and anonymous sources, is their toxic combination to the reputation and integrity of the news media, especially print.
Luckily, we are in a robust and growing era of social media where anyone who can find a keyboard and a link to the internet has a platform to speak for themselves. Some refer to themselves as citizen journalists. Here is the irony; if you’re plugged into social media at all, you know the following:
• 80% of the content on the web in contributed by less than 20% of web users.
• 50% of what appears on the web is completely fabricated.
• 50% of the balance is suspect.
• 50% of the remainder is generated to make a point, usually negative and is destructive, extremely hard to source, and,
• The tiny fraction of what remains may have some truth in it.
Taken as a whole, and by comparison, the credibility of newspapers is below 10 on a scale of 1 -100. Believability and credibility of information on the web is 75-80 on a scale of 100. The problems with main stream media are self-inflicted and continue to be. The ultimate irony is that while demanding ever increasing transparency from all of us, the news media in its procedures, performance, products and ethics has become increasingly opaque, blind, and anonymous.
Will this ever change? To be continued in future blogs…