With the decay of codes of media ethics we need to be smarter than ever when choosing information we are willing to trust.
Donald Trump’s no-holds-barred electoral campaign, punctuated by pyrotechnic rally performances, used the media to generate waves of shock, ridicule and admiration through the United States and the world—and won him America’s presidency. These tactics—and the resulting counterattacks—jammed new information silos into the internet and helped divide the nation’s political constituencies. They also threatened the media’s codes of ethics, which specify moral values and standards of behavior that should be observed in the practice of professional journalism.
Soon after results were received for the 2016 US general election, Will Rahn of CBS News Digital composed an excellent internet essay that could be classified as a sort of mea culpa about the Trump election victory and the quality of the campaign coverage by newspapers, television and radio. He starts:
“The mood in the Washington press corps is bleak, and deservedly so. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that, with a few exceptions, we were all tacitly or explicitly #WithHer, which has led to a certain anguish in the face of Donald Trump’s victory. More than that and more importantly, we also missed the story, after having spent months mocking the people who had a better sense of what was going on. This is all symptomatic of modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing: its unbearable smugness. Had Hillary Clinton won, there’s be a winking ‘we did it’ feeling in the press, a sense that we were brave and called Trump a liar and saved the republic.”
Rahn’s opinions struck a chord with many journalists, and they may have been stung by his reference to the “unbearable smugness,” or air of superiority, assumed by leading American media. And most would have agreed with his closing remark that “We have to fix this, and the broken reasoning behind it. There’s a fleeting fun to gang-ups and groupthink. But it’s not worth what we are losing in the process.”
The Fourth Estate
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) prizes its detailed code of ethics and in the day, armed with this code, members could crow about journalism’s claim to represent the Fourth Estate. This “estate” came to be believed more or less as fact after, in 1787, Thomas Carlyle told the English parliament that its reporters’ gallery was a “Fourth Estate more important” than the other three estates—the church, the nobility and the commoners, or ordinary folk. Times have changed.
The preamble to the SPJ Code of Ethics states that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.” Today those words seem almost utopian in their reach. Most publishers who wish to be considered serious news sources do pay lip service to the code.
But, like everyone, else they must also please their patrons. Importantly, they must also compete with social media—that powerful online concoction of opinion, gossip, all manner of printed-word specialties from dictionaries to bomb-making advice, and the online personas of existing or formerly-published newspapers and magazines.
Newspapers feel the need to offer readers more excitement in smaller packages in order to compete better, and some editors and publishers must look with secret envy at the adrenaline style and story picks of Breitbart’s Big Government edition, if not those of the 90-year-old news-stand National Enquirer celebrity gossip sheet. “The internet has loosened our collective grasp on the truth,” sighed The New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo. “Social media has become an increasingly powerful cultural and political force, to the point that its effects are now beginning to alter the course of global events.”
Newspaper readership has plummeted in the past decade and a half, public trust in what the papers say crawls the bottom of the charts along with the politicians, and habitual readers are mostly aged over 50. Television news is followed by a goodly percentage of the population. But the internet, easy to read and increasingly tailored to the reader’s own tastes, takes the cake—62% of US adults get news via social media.
Playing to the Audience
Donald Trump would not have won the presidency without the skillful use of the internet and the other media. His name recognition, his angry but detail-short remarks about what needs fixing in America, and his brand of implicit in-your-face self-importance gained ground every time the mainstream media called him out for his appalling references to women, immigrants and minorities.
SPJ president Lynn Walsh recently reminded her membership that “journalists and news organizations need to continue responsible and ethical reporting, informing the public about their communities, our nation and the world. Americans—regardless of political allegiance—need to engage and invest in responsible and ethical reporting in order for it to thrive.”
Such talk means little to Trump’s chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who doubles as media guru for the US nationalist cause. “The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with this country,” he told Michael Wolff of The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive Trump Tower interview. “It’s just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f—ing idea what’s going on. If The New York Times didn’t exist, CNN and MSNBC would be a test pattern. The Huffington Post and everything else is predicated on The New York Times. It’s a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information— and her confidence. That was our opening.”
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There’s truth in Bannon’s comment, for the Times is closely followed by other editors and journalists who expect to benefit from gaining knowledge of the media giant’s news strategies. And the “closed circle” idea is strengthened by the increased reliance of financially pressed old-time media on Associated Press, Reuters, and other wire-service (and press-release) information to fill their news columns.
By contrast, Trump and Bannon chose their own messages, for people who preferred information from outside the circle. Working at the grass-roots level they identified the core needs and attitudes of people of various political areas and crafted resolutions that would be mentioned in company with more generalized nationalist storylines for speeches and printed matter that would be offered to appropriate audiences.
This creative no-holds-barred campaign, topped by Trump’s cross-country performances, attracted waves of shock, derision, and admiration – and won the election. Unfortunately these tactics also created new information silos within the social media and helped to divide the nation further, but that is another story. In his emollient post-election 2016 Thanksgiving speech, Trump urged Americans to “begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country.”
Alas, Lynn Walsh was preaching her ethical sermon to a choir that consists mostly of newspaper, radio and television-news writers, who know something about journalistic ethics. Few, if any, of her words would convey special meaning to the social media contributors, contract and PR writers, general mischief-makers, and propagandists who use internet media as tools for the support of retail and medical goods, a vast array of services, political causes and political hopefuls.
Gung-ho demi-journalists also are in a good position to threaten codes of ethics, which lay down the moral values and standards of behavior to be observed by professional peers, including mass-media writers. Some wonder whether “bad behavior,” as represented by Trump in his campaign persona or the scaremongers e-zines, will continue its increase. And if bad behavor somehow becomes an accepted style, are these ethical guardians of the printed word doomed to become shredder fodder?
Trade journalists and the SPJ faithful miss the days when editors would wave a fairly innocuous piece of copy at them and ask, “Did you fact-check this? What’s your source?” or, “If you want to write about your personal prejudices, save it for the editorial page.”
They’re right to be fondly nostalgic, but those days have just about vanished. This means that unless readers are content with being blithely and blindly trustful they must be on the alert. Should they rely on social media for keys on the hot news they need and enjoy, and if so, which ones? Which website, blog or e-zine are they to believe? Which TV channel provides the best news coverage? Which newspaper is most balanced in its coverage of politics, finance, law and order, sports, international affairs and the rest?
Ordinary citizens need to keep abreast of local, national and international news, for this is a vital part of the information needed to formulate opinions and make them known, and to defend their rights. All citizens of democratic societies should make themselves aware of the currents and eddies of a rapidly changing world.
But with the decay of codes of media ethics they need to be smarter than ever when choosing information that they are willing to trust. Otherwise, someone else will make that decision. This is happening already, with internet algorithms that “learn” individual lifestyle preferences and social media choices, and provide information to match.
Maintaining personal independence means that people must consider who is producing or sponsoring the information they receive, the writer’s reliability, and perhaps even the type of world the information’s originator would like to see take shape. As President John F. Kennedy advised in 1958, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
*[A version of this article was featured on Nigel Hey’s blog.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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