So, the Vatican has weighed in on the growing scandal with media mogul Rupert Murdock’s News of the World cell phone hacking scandal. The Holy See’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, opines that its high time the news media to adopt what His Holiness has termed “info-ethics.”
I heartily agree, as a veteran journalist who has watched my profession’s once-unassailable dedication to balance and fairness shredded over the years.
But let’s also be brutally honest: We are in a time when what is covered, and how it is covered is increasingly determined not by news value but the number of “hits” or “page views” a story might get on the Web.
Thoughtful, in-depth, responsible journalism just doesn’t pump up the “SEO” (Search Engine Optimization) numbers like stories that appeal to the lowest moral/ethical denominator among readers — sex, scandal, celebrities in rehab and the latest misbehavings of Reality TV stars.
I used to be convinced that real journalists could exercise something called “news judgment,” and exercise professional detachment in telling all sides of a story. The best reporters and editors had those ethics, and integrity, albeit seasoned by cynicism that could be at times extreme.
As for the kind of appeal to the salacious that now is so mainstream in the media, that was reserved for those laughable, more-fiction-than-fact tabloids at the supermarket checkout counters.
Not any more. So, yes, journalism needs to adopt a set of ethics. Journalism needs to be responsible. Journalism needs to abide by the law — not hack into cell phones of murder victims, illegally obtain medical records or bribe public officials for juicy bits of “news.”
But journalism won’t be doing that, at least to any industry-wide extent, as long as there is a reading public hungry for their next voyeuristic news high.
True journalistic ethics reform ultimately rides on the tide of some recommitment to what’s right by the consumers — a public that, if the very salacious headlines they seem to hunger for so are representative, has lost its moral compass.
That condition, of course, is hardly new. Consider this advicefromf St. Paul, some 2,000 years ago. Isn’t the same regeneration he called for needed desperately today?
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
Until humankind embraces such an attitude toward its “news,” I suspect we will continued to be trapped in an information landscape where the Golden Rule is ignored in favor of other, less gracious aphorisms: “Sex sells.” “If it bleeds, it leads.” And, as the News of the World scandal underscores, “The ends justify the means.”