Elements of Journalism: Chapter 2
The second chapter of Elements of Journalism focuses on the Prime Directive of journalism: to tell the truth. It seems like such a straightforward principle if you don’t give it much thought, and it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to think that, as a journalist, you’re main obligation is to the noble cause of Truth. Of course, this chapter tears through the façade of simplicity, discussing how truth doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone and in every situation.
The chapter starts with a summary of the Pentagon Papers imbroglio, which involved issues very similar to what we looked at in last weeks case studies: namely, that accurately reporting what is said may not necessarily be the same as, or may even be directly contrary to, reporting the truth.
On the subject of the truth behind the stated ‘facts’, here’s a thought: when Pew published the survey of journalists in which 100 percent of respondents said “getting the facts right” is a paramount value, how many of those responded truthfully? Sure, you would think most would respond that way, but all of them? How many Stephen Glasses or Jayson Blairs are behind that statistic? The truth may lie well below 100 percent, but until we figure out mind reading, it would be impossible to know for sure.
The idea of such seemingly opposing groups as oppressive dictators and postmodernists come to similar conclusions on literal definitions of truthfulness is actually somewhat disturbing to me. Postmodernism always seemed like a liberating worldview to me, but with that in mind, it seems like you could use it to justify oppression without much intellectual stretching.
I think Richard Harwood’s football analogy is an extremely effective way to show the different levels of truth. As the venerable philosopher Shawn Carter once said, “Numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard.” It’s the story behind those numbers that is up for debate.
The chapter continually touching on the conflicts between truth and other values, like fairness, balance and simple accuracy, before making a more or less definitive statement: truth should always win out. With all the paradigm-challenging and gray areas in this class, I think that, at least, is something I can stand by. Truth may be a difficult goal to define, but it should still be something to strive towards. Just as the chapter describes the process of reporting a topic as a process of getting closer to the truth of the matter, the experience of reporting gets us as journalists closer to understanding truth itself.
Media Ethics: Chapter 3 (pp. 61-62)
This section of the third chapter of “Media Ethics” focuses on the conflicts and commonalities between journalism and public relations. The basic idea is that the professions have complementary goals, but differ in their definitions of news. The reading states that, while PR flacks see no news (or rather, things going as planned) as good news, journalist’s focus on when things go wrong. While this is a fairly accurate way to look at the dynamic between the two, it is no rule by any means. With the “no such thing as bad publicity” ethos, a PIO could turn poor sales into an underdog story. Conversely, Apple making huge quarterly gains makes headlines as much as when the company posts bad sales for releasing a new smartphone that made no real improvements on the previous one.
I feel like this section is making the implicit argument that public relations people, by the nature of the job, make more ethical concessions than journalists by trying to be persuasive under the guise of being informative, and by preventing potentially harmful information from leaking. That may be true, but the authors don’t seem to give PR a fair shake. They raise all these questions, followed by asking “Doesn’t persuasion need the contrast of news to succeed?”, and then promptly switch subjects. I get that the book is geared toward journalists, but it seems disingenuous for an ethics text to describe a conflict with multiple angles and takes one side without really giving too much thought to the other.
I hate synergy. They made me read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” in high school, and it was bogus. This may color my view on the issue, but I think media synergy is a huge issue when you have a conglomerate like Disney that owns a media company like ABC. What happens when Disney Channel is promoting it’s latest teen idol and ABC News runs a story on her latest rehab stint? I’d love to be at that company picnic.
This is definitely an appropriate film for a week dealing with the tricky nature of truth. In the film, four witnesses to a crime give conflicting accounts of a rape and murder. Each person’s version of events reflects his or her own interests, tying into the idea that each person constructs a separate version of reality in his or her mind. While no single story can be said to be the true account, some semblance of the truth emerges from the commonalities among the stories. This ties into the idea of the synoptic, but it also seems to bear resemblance to the marketplace of ideas philosophy: that the truth can arise from several competing ideas.
Ethical Issue of the Week
The web was full of complaints this week that U.S. news sources were over-reporting a certain young male pop sensation’s legal issues to the detriment of stories on issues with decidedly more impact—namely, the Ukrainian protests. Then you have this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH68bSJXGE8) in which MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell interrupts a live discussion with a Congresswoman on the NSA to break news about, you guessed it, Justin Bieber. This obviously ties into the aforementioned issue, which is more of a question of good reporting standards. But the ethical issue here is that this Congresswoman is taking time out of her day to discuss an issue that could affect millions of people, and MSNBC interrupts her mid-sentence to cut to celebrity fluff. It does a disservice to both the guest and the viewers, and it hurts MSNBC’s credibility as a news source.
Should PR professionals be held to the same ethical standards when it comes to the truth?
Bread and circuses: the concept of giving up one’s personal sovereignty in exchange for pleasure self-indulgence. For a media example, see the above “Ethical Issue of the Week.”
Edward Bernays: One of the earliest pioneers of public relations, Bernays used psychology to develop propaganda and PR, such as the “Torches of Freedom” campaign depicting smoking as symbols of women’s liberation.
Truth: The primary obligation of journalism, truth cannot be defined in a single sentence. The approximations of “reality” and “fact” do not do it justice. See above for my musings on truth.
Objectivity: In journalism, the principle of maintaining a neutral stance and not letting personal opinions or ideology affect the reporting of news.
“The world outside and the pictures in our heads”: The dichotomy between objective reality and the how each person’s perceives it. Journalist Walter Lippmann argued people know the world indirectly through these pictures, and that the media largely obscures the pictures.
Construction of Reality: The idea that each person interprets and responds to reality in a different way, creating a different version of reality in each person’s mind.
Synoptic: something providing a general view or synopsis.
Synoptic Gospels: the first three Gospels of the Bible, so called because they include similar stories and are written in a similar way, in contrast to the fourth Gospel, John.
Rashomon Effect: interpretations of an event by different witnesses that contradict each other. The term comes from the Japanese move Rashomon, in which four witnesses have each have different account of a crime.