To minimize harm or maximize clicks?
A crisis of conscience for the journalism industry
Social media has taken journalism to a new era of being first over being right. The metric of newsworthiness today is measured by the level of potential outrage it can generate. Take, for example, the weeks worth of hay garnered from a single out-of-context frame pulled from an edited video purporting to represent everything wrong with the world today.
As long as “the news” operates on the equation of outrage clicks for fast cash, the profit-driven journalism model will continue to drive an oversupply of irrelevant information to our newsfeed. The status quo demands quantity over quality as we try, but fail, to quench our thirst for truth on faucets of pure information. This constant flood of nonsense obfuscates clarity and leaves us grasping for straws in a contextual death spiral — as Colin Horgan puts it.
It’s been said not reading the newspaper will leave you uninformed, but reading the newspaper will leave you misinformed. Juxtapose that with the notion that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on, and the combined validity of those clichés marks a troubling time for social media and journalism.
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What’s lost in all of this is obvious madness is the primary purpose of journalism—the pursuit of seeking and reporting the truth. A truth that is defined by a collection of subjective perspectives balanced with universal maxims to ethically present those views.
I complain, a lot, about the problems of legacy media and its claim to objective storytelling. I have this insane idea that it’s more detrimental to credibility to present news reports under the guise that “this is the story, how it is,” versus “this is the story, how we see it.” I would argue the arrogant claim to know and understand everything about any subject matter is what irks most readers.
When you consider that many legacy media outlets write their own ethics codes (some of which are loosely based on the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics), it’s hard to excuse the blatant disregard for certain basic tenets of journalism, such as the concept of “minimizing harm.”
According to SPJ’s code of ethics, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
Journalists are encouraged to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort” by showing “compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage” and by employing a “heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.”
Unfortunately, those involved in perpetuating the misplacement of public outrage have no interest in adhering to a code of ethics when it comes to politically-charged stories of high-traffic value.
Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.—SPJ Code of Ethics, “Minimize Harm”
Pandering to lurid curiosity
The SPJ code of ethics also says to “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”
Before I quit the journalism profession to pursue an independent writing career, I worked for a metro-area newspaper in 2015. It was the year of data leaks and Ashley Madison was on the chopping block. The adulterer website’s data was dropped in my lap with a tip from a source that several government email addresses from the nearby airbase were on the list.
It was a story with a sex angle, one that I knew would generate a lot of traffic.
After publishing my first account, I spent days combing through every bit of data with the aim of anaylzing every profile within my state. Close to the end of my investigation, I found evidence that a state representative was on the list. Not just any state representative, but the district representative where the newspaper resided.
It was Friday evening and I was sitting on a tempest in a teapot (presuming it to be a potential tsunami on the heels of my wing flap). I vividly remember the dialog I had with my supervising editor and my executive editor. In the beginning, I advocated for publishing the story. My argument was simple: He was a politician, which made him a public figure and fair game for “stories in the public interest.” I deemed it newsworthy. And for those of you with partisan-motivated concerns, he was also a Republican.
My supervising editor agreed with me, but my executive editor was the voice of reason. She pointed out how he “was not like other Republicans” in the sense that “he didn’t beat the drum of family values” like others do (side-thought: Is hypocrisy for the sake of hypocrisy newsworthy?). She also noted that this was a “personal matter” which happened over two years ago—was it still relevant just because Ashley Madison had made the news? She thought not.
Except for a comment from the politician, I had the story. The discussion with my editors was to determine if the story was newsworthy enough to call him for a quote that evening. It ended with a hard no.
Flash forward to the following Monday morning and I had turned around. After contemplating the discussion over the weekend, I now agreed with my executive editor. Even public figures have some right to privacy. However, the politician had sent an email to “40 relatives and close friends” and someone leaked the story to another newspaper.
Now that the story was “out there,” I was instructed to write it all up. “But what of our conclusion?” I asked “Didn’t we agree that it’s not newsworthy?”
It didn’t matter anymore. The other paper was going to collect all the money if we didn’t fall in—to the bottom—line.
After our exclusive interview with the remorseful politician, I felt rotten. His wife already knew “every detail” about it, and all we accomplished in running the story was pandering to our audience’s lurid curiosity. When previous mentors and some of my colleagues congratulated me on the scoop, I felt even more rotten. The politician did not deserve to have his privacy violated.
Click, click, click
The six media conglomerates which own a majority of the media are interested in one thing — maximizing profits. Satire, hyperbole, extreme metaphors and sensationalist analogies are the new tools of the journalism trade. The duty to inform the public has been replaced with a quota to boost website traffic inside an echo chamber. Our minds have been reprogrammed to absorb confusion from addictive social media platforms designed to keep us wasting time in front of screens like slot players in Las Vegas. When you‘re on tilt, media companies get rich.
Social media has left us more willing to comment on third-party encounters from the safety of our keyboard than to socially engage in real-world interactions of our own. Unscrupulous journalists supply addicts with one intense emotional story after another. The new world order of opportunistic journalism seems keen on capitalizing on a never-ending cue of complaints, critiques, and criticism.
As long as this vicious cycle continues, some people will be falsely accused, some people may lose their jobs, some people might get death threats, and some people could actually be killed or commit suicide… doesn’t matter as long as the story went viral.
The only hope we have in correcting this bastardization of the news is to sue, sue, sue. When major media outlets propagandize banal moments for the purpose of stirring the profit pot, libeling and defaming anyone in their way, there has to be consequences.
If we want media outlets to take their ethical obligation to minimizing harm seriously, then we have to hit them hard in their pocketbook.
Just ask Gawker.
Something is rotten in the state of journalism
Indoctrinated with truthiness, self-proclaimed journalists are nothing more than predators hunting for topics to exploit. They are conceited hyenas feasting on the misery of the depraved in broad daylight. Nothing quells their hunger for schadenfreude quite like a fresh body burning at the stake. Death and destruction is award-winning material to these organizations who claim their sole responsibility is peddling newsworthy information.
Those who speak truth to power don’t cower behind the establishment’s idea of objective journalism. When the truth is simply looking at a picture and describing what you saw, not what your editor saw, speaking truth is personal. Especially when it contradicts the narrative of the status quo.
I understand now, more than ever, the public’s apprehension upon speaking to me the moment I identified myself as a “journalist.”
Nowadays, I’m just a writer with observations—and like most written observations, it’s open to your interpretation.