Thursday, November 29, 2012

Media Ethics
We live in a media age, or so "they say." It’s queer, then, how so many of "them" don’t understand journalistic ethics. Especially when modern “social” technology allows more people to “join in.” Once, on one of my favorite essay-blogs, I found a few people asking each other why people went to J-school. One of the few times I’ve ever got a “thanks” e-mail, and this was from a fellow with over 20,000 readers, (Scott Berkun) was after I added my voice to those blog comments, explaining that J-school ensures folks have ethics.

I explained there was a Journalism program in Eastern Canada, a short one for people who already have a degree, where if one of your news stories has even one factual error then you fail “… either the course or the semester, I forget which.” Naturally, I did not just “guess” which one you fail. Guessing is only good for gossip—and look what damage that does!

“No guessing” applies to things like, say, the writing of job titles and department titles, the spelling of names and even the dates of rock songs. Finding out these details could be seen by lazy and foolish people as “extra work,” … while being seen by ethical people as merely “just work” that “has to be done.” When I was a volunteer reporter for my university student newspaper I learned it’s OK, when you don’t know a person’s job title, to merely say “employee,” --just don’t guess. All of your facts should be either attributed, “…six tons according to the Vice President,” or else you should be able to bet your right arm on it. At my student paper our style was to attribute everything we possibly could.

As with any lady or gentleman, for whom ethics are common sense, a reporter is always on “Scouts honor.” Your facts and quotes should be good as gold, fit to be re-printed in a royal encyclopedia. Gossip morphs, journalism doesn’t.

Common Sense
At the end of my first year as a volunteer I had the honor of having a story of mine take up the entire top half of the front page, a story “above the fold” as we say. One teensy paragraph of this big story had been researched by Andrew Sparling, a guy who went on to become next year’s editor. Andrew urged me to have the byline solely in my name. But no, I insisted on sharing the byline because, figuratively, I did not want to risk my right arm. Call me a Klingon, but honor is important to me. You can’t be only a tiny bit pregnant, or a teensy bit without honor.

Years after university I freelanced for an intellectual coffee house magazine, Falstaff’s Table. What happened was: After reading a line from Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, “We can’t all be our own Tom Paine,” I researched and wrote a piece on the literary father of the American Revolution. The editor liked it and paid me. Sweet! Then I went on holidays, where one day I was privileged to tour a cement plant. Light bulb! Back to the editor, who told me that no, the public wouldn’t care about the making of cement. So I immediately asked if I could do a “history of concrete” piece. The editor agreed. I found it fascinating that during the Dark Ages the peasants, who only knew of stones, bricks and mortar, would think the mossy old Roman bridges had been built by the devil, as the technology had been lost.

Meanwhile, as I was writing the article, a lady told me that when her husband, an engineer, went on holidays he too would visit cement plants. He was very interested in my upcoming piece, she said, as his colleagues were always looking for ways to make concrete interesting to the public. As it happened, he and his wife left town right after the piece came out, so I never got to say: The factual errors were my editor’s! Without telling me, the editor had added some engineering that he himself was not absolutely sure of. This without attributing it to himself or anyone else. Grrr!

I took his money and sat him down and explained he would get no third piece from me.

Looking back, I suppose that editor didn’t much believe in people. I realized he had given me a few little clues to his beliefs, the most important being how he believed in “fact checkers.” Aw, rubbish! To be clear: Neither of my city daily newspapers uses “fact checkers” nor did my student newspaper. We would have been deeply offended at the idea.

No Hired Guns
According to Business Guru Peter Drucker, as documented in his autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander, “fact checkers” were introduced by the Luce media chain. Drucker, who knew Henry Luce personaly, found this laughable, especially when the checkers would proceed to alter the copy (manuscript) because they had misunderstood. Well, I’m not laughing. If your writers need to be fact checked, if they have no loyalty to the brand of “journalistic ethics,” then what are they? Hired guns? ...

Here’s another ethic: A journalist reports the news; he doesn’t make it. To put it crudely, he does not act as an agent provocateur. Staying above the fray, he only reports what’s already there.

“Already there” means: For taking a photograph, outdoors, he does not first rearrange the rocks on the ground to look more balanced, nor, when indoors, artfully re-arrange the furniture, nor, for a human subject, put on make up or lipstick. I documented this in my essay Citizen Activist, archived November 2011. When we activists were ambling down the sidewalk, and I was walking alongside David Gazzard, a Calgary Herald reporter I knew, every time the TV cameraman turned around to get a shot of us all, David would step aside down onto the road, out of camera range. It was not his place to “make news.”

Once, on a late Saturday afternoon, my university chaplain and I were the very last ones left at a public rally at the Family of Man statues downtown. I was covering it for my newspaper. A lonely Calgary Herald reporter appeared. The rally speaker, former Lieutenant-Governor Grant MacEwan, was long gone, and so was the crowd. Oh well, at least the reporter could still interview us for quotes… but only after the chaplain and I both testified I was truly there as a citizen, besides being a volunteer reporter; we swore I absolutely would have still attended the rally even if I wasn’t reporting back to the student paper.

Fair is Fair
Here’s another ethic: A gentlemen of the press is fair and unbiased, providing balanced reports. I realize some skeptical smirking guy might want to “discuss” how we all have some measure of bias. Really? That’s one rabbit I’m not chasing.

Of course out in nature the measurement of zero does not exist: Even vegetarians have pollutants in their body and live with clicks of background radiation. So if some cynic says to me, “Everyone has bias” then I respond, “Sure, we all have a few decimal points of bias. No one has zero. Yet when I was a soccer referee, even with my own side playing, I could feel myself being fair.” It’s a neat feeling, just like when I’m being a community centre chairman. I suppose part of what’s cool is feeling my heavy ego, which I normally drag around like a chain, fall away. Then, by comparison, I enjoy something approaching the focused clarity of a Buddhist monk.

Again, when I am a judge at toastmaster competitions, with a speaker from my own club involved, I am always fair. In fact, for toastmasters we have several judges, not to even out bias but to even out human error, as with judging skating or rhythmic gymnastics. Of course, whenever we have the luxury of extra judges—oh joy--then I would bow out of judging anyone from my own club.

“Balanced reports” means: There are always two sides. Every police rookie soon learns, when it comes to disputes, not to righteously rush off to make an arrest until he hears the other fellow’s story too. (According to best-selling police fiction by Joseph Wambaugh) An ethical reporter, likewise, will seek out and include the “other side,” and then trust the readers to judge. That’s what balanced means… Unhappily, I think the owners of a certain Canadian news service have compromised themselves. Long before “global warming” became downgraded to “climate change” I had become suspicious that their stories on “warming” were favoring emotional bias over science: I had noticed they never included quotes by global warming “deniers.”

Balance Over Bias
Does your community library have female librarians? Are they religious? Good friends? Well, what about abortion? Do the friends all agree they will only stock books in favor… or only against? ... Easy: When it comes to abortion, or any issue, according to a librarian, they will take care to purchase an equal number of books advocating both sides. I have to chuckle: In their case, “balance,” with their books on a scale, is meant literally!

You might ask, “Yes, but what if a journalist really, truly, needs to express his bias?” Easy: That’s what editorials and columns are for. These days I am following the blog of a Calgary Sun newspaper columnist, Warren Kinsella. In the little bio for his column he is called a backroom political party worker. In other words: openly, honestly biased. On his blog, where he includes all his columns, he recently replied to a commenter who had chastised him ‘as a journalist’: “I’m not a journalist, you moron.” His Sun column? It always appears with his personal photograph, signaling the column is personal and partisan.

As for politics, as far as it affects reporters, one of the “hazards of the trade” is they may become “political eunuchs.” (After all, they have to cover all parties) This I learned at a free afternoon workshop in “dealing with the media.” Our teacher was a liberated lady from the CBC. I had a nice time. In attendance, at the carpenter’s union hall, were activists from many causes. In the midst of us learning to write press releases, someone popped the question: “Is there a conspiracy?” Silence. You could have heard a pin drop. The answer was… no, and … the folks who become editors all tend to be of the same type, so in that sense the news is the same. But they do try, she assured us, to be ethical.

Truth Over Entertainment
Peter Drucker, who worked in the real world long before he invented “business management,” once wrote that businessmen in a boardroom, before they are constrained to compromise, should first determine what is Right. In the world of journalism, I have found newspapers to be the gold standard for ethics, for what is Right. I cherish newsprint journalism for being appropriate: I believe it’s all downhill from there. For the other media, I think journalists still know what is Right, even as they compromise. Like how people who once took driving lessons still know what a driving instructor would say to do.

For example, when Chatelaine magazine was caught putting lipstick on their cover photo of K.D. Lang, they had the grace to blush. They didn’t make excuses or claim, “Hey, that’s entertainment.” (In the accompanying article, Ms Lang said she doesn’t wear makeup)

To me, the worst journalism is television: Descended from vaudeville, dependent on ratings and aimed at a much lower common denominator, television really compromises. Neil Postman has done excellent work on analyzing the difference between newsprint and TV. (See his How to Watch TV News) He has pointed out that if you typed out all the words spoken in a half hour 6 o’clock news program, the words would only equal the front page of a newspaper. But at least there are nice pretty moving pictures!

Clearly, then, there is no such thing as a daily “Fox Newspaper.” At least, not yet.

Surely, to a lady or gentleman, ethics are common sense. It logically follows, when doing social media, it only takes a second of self-discipline to do what is Right.

Meanwhile, if the “6 o’clock infotainment,” due to various constraints, is simply unable to be as “journalistic” as the less entertaining “just the facts Ma’am” newspapers, then I think everybody and their dog should be aware of that. After all, we live in a media age.

Sean Crawford
Calgary, 2012

~Even though I was 90% sure that Postman’s book was called Understanding TV News (In fact, it’s called How to Watch TV News) I did not write using my memory. I took time to look up the title after applying the acid test from an old army captain in David Gerrold’s Chtorr Wars series: “Be Sure! Can I rip off your arm if you’re wrong?” ...That’s the sort of thing I mean by ethics.

~ For how to read newspapers with ease, see my Reading Newspapers, archived in November 2012.

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