Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What the News Corp Scandal Tells Us

Given all the ink or pixels devoted to covering the scandal at the 168-year-old News of the World and parent company, News Corp., I'd have to say that the scandal has become one of the summers top two biggest stories.

The other, in case you've been able to forget, is the political machinations around the debt ceiling.

From a practical matter, it seems that executives other than the editors had to have been aware of some of the money being paid out to British police officers. After all, someone had to prepare the checks or withdraw the cash while someone had to approve the payments. And those payments came out of someone's budget. (Knowing how budget meetings go, I would have liked to have been in the room when those budget items had to be justified.)

But what's interesting about the scandal isn't the scandal itself.

It's that I've yet to see much noise/buzz/commentary on what the scandal says about journalistic integrity and standards. 

Most news organizations today are focused on covering breaking news -- which is not always the same as breaking the news itself. For example, lots of local TV news stations boast about covering breaking news by which they mean local crimes, water main breaks, storms hitting the area, etc. They rarely talk about their role in uncovering the news.  (In terms of local TV news, perhaps that's because a lot of their news -- like the water main breaks -- impact entire communities and are rarely "Exclusives.")

So in a culture of covering breaking news, getting the news out first is a priority.

News of the World, however, had a culture that also prized the ability to uncover news, to generate exclusives -- and that may have helped it become England's largest Sunday paper by circulation.

But the end result, as we know all know, is a culture that led to breaking the law. Even before laws were broken, the News of the World's culture led its reporters, with the knowledge and approval of its editors, to push beyond the limits of journalistic integrity. 

More than ever, because of the scandal, the media must also look at what "integrity" means. Exclusives can be important, but journalists and bloggers need to define what steps they will and won't take. Will they pay money to get access to a noteworthy source for an interview? If they pay money to  that source, how will they disclose that fact? (And how will they vet that the source is factual?)  What criteria will they use to determine whether they use confidential source (those quoted without direct attribution)? The New York Times has a criteria it published online but a lot of other news organizations have not made clear the criteria they use.

The media should also ask itself about where the limits should be -- where that line is -- and what steps they'll take to prevent reporters, editors, bloggers, etc. from crossing that line.

It's not only journalists who should be asking and answering these questions. It's also the consumers of newspapers, magazines and social media, who are important because they make the decisions about issues and subscriptions to buy.

What's interesting is that more than ever, journalists, publicists and social media practitioners are in some ways more tied together than ever. Or perhaps it's that journalists and publicists are in the same boat and are re-arranging the deck furniture.

Either way, we all must work on an evolving definition of what's news and how to communicate news, opinion and press releases.  For bloggers and reporters alike, that includes disclosing potential conflicts of interest. For PR functions, when you work with bloggers and other social media influencers, it's important to make sure they disclose any conflict of interests.

Interestingly, the Journal's Bret Stephens wrote an interesting column today (after I wrote the original version of this blog article last night) that discusses journalistic integrity by comparing WIkiLeaks to News of the World  as a way to compare news in the public interest (such as uncovering government corruption) and news "merely of interest to the public," which Stephens defines as "just so much tittle-tattle about essentially private lives." I don't necessarily agree with Stephens' conclusions, but I think it's a discussion worth having.

What should "journalistic integrity" is now an open question, one that we must address in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

No comments: