Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Failure of Conventional Journalistic Ethics

Margaret Sullivan has an article in the Washington Post: How BuzzFeed crossed the line in publishing salacious ‘dossier’ on Trump.  In it she makes the points:
But at many other news organizations, the rule is caution: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
It’s a bad idea, and always has been, to publish unverified smears.
It’s never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo. 
 Let's see how that works in practice.   When Donald J. Trump went on with his birther allegations that Obama was not born in the United States, he repeated rumors and innuendo, and added some of his own unverified smears.

If the rules are as Margaret Sullivan says, why did major news organizations publish what Trump said?

The answer would likely be - the newsworthiness lies in the fact that a celebrity spokesperson is saying something (whatever it is) and not in the fact that what the person is saying is rumors, innuendo and unverified smears.

That puts the news organization in the position that once a celebrity says something, no matter how false, it is newsworthy.  Newsworthiness has been conferred on something by the celebrity uttering it.  If Joe Shmoe has assembled a dossier of unverified allegations, it is not news unless it is verified, and should not be published.

What Margaret Sullivan is arguing has this effect: the news organization ought to be a fact-checker and filter for Joe Shmoe; but is not for the celebrity.

We see the implicit assumption of conventional journalistic ethics here - that we all have a common interest in the truth, and that though what the celebrity is saying is merely rumors, innuendo and unverified smears, the resulting backlash and public disapproval will punish the celebrity.  Therefore, the news organization doesn't need to act as a filter on publishing what a celebrity says.

Well, Trump and his supporters defy this ethical standard.   Trump has zero interest in the truth - he denies saying things that he said that are recorded on video; and his public has zero interest in censuring Trump for lying, repeating rumors, innuendo and unverified smears.

Thus we end up with the 2016 US Presidential campaign.  Trump would have mostly been blacked out of the news had news organizations applied the same rules to what he said to the dossier compiled by the ex-MI6 agent (does knowing that he is Christopher Steele of Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. change the newsworthiness of what he wrote?  Or does he have to have a TV reality show in order to have whatever he says published by news organizations?)