Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ethics and Journalism in the Age of Social Media


"The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses."
Malcom X

There is a fundamental issue that exists today and I want to call it the greatest existential crisis of our time; it is the choice to make money or to do the right thing. I understand that this choice is not something mankind is facing for the first time and that we have always grappled with it in capitalist societies, but my concern is that the tilt in favour of making money, today, seems to override standing on our principles and ethics. More than ever before in our history. Today, the vast majority of corporations and individuals seem to feel that bottom-line growth justifies the means, and this is something that should concern us all, greatly.

Media is the most powerful communication tool. In fact, I would argue that with the advent of social media, where anyone with an internet connection can spread news, the role of the mainstream media has not diminished but become even more important. The internet is filled with rumours and falsehoods, and social media in large part fuels stories that are unverified but popular and trending due to their sensational or gossipy nature. In such a world, the role of established media outlets as the arbiters or truth and fact checking, takes on much greater urgency. And it requires far more responsibility from editors and publishers than ever before in history. Yet driving eyeballs and making money has become an equally important goal for all these media houses that are struggling to survive in the digital age; a situation that has created a serious dilemma between chasing revenue and applying ethics in journalism. The question is whether to break news first (to drive maximum eyeballs and revenue) or wait to check the facts and risk being an hour late to the party - which in social media standard time is roughly a decade late.

Even though the reality is that speed and being first count for more eyeballs than being factually correct, it does not absolve so-called reputable media outlets of the greater responsibility that they have to society. With great power comes great responsibility. Granted, mainstream media is no longer our only source of information. For that reason, it is even more important for them to be sources of trusted and reliable information. Here, I make a distinction between cable news and mainstream news; the former is largely opinion, gossip and entertainment, while the latter needs to be the opposite. However, both should aspire to greater truth, based on some of the ethics and principles that have driven responsible journalism for centuries. They both wield tremendous influence over the masses and our minds.

Money can be made, but a reputation cannot be regained or fixed (with all the dollars in the world) once the trust between reader and institution has been broken. There should be absolutely no place for the sensational half-truths and lack of fact checking that we see from even the most venerable media institutions today. In the race to break a story or get retweeted into becoming a trending topic, they are all willing to put principles aside. Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on the horrific UVA campus rape, and the Fox News interview with a Seal Team Six member who was part of the Bin Laden raid, are both examples of the lack of ethics to which I am referring.

Rolling Stone clearly chose to run with a story based on the “sensational” aspects and in doing so chose to forego the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. None of this is about disrespecting the victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Equally, Fox News did a disservice to our country by agreeing to give the Seal Team Six member a platform on which to speak publicly. There used to be an unbreakable code of honour among men who serve our country in the shadows. They did it knowing that nobody would ever know their sacrifice by face or name; there is no greater honour or valiance. I believe these men were the bravest of the brave because they were driven by a sense of duty, honour and the noblest quality in humanity, not by fame, fortune or personal glory. For this reason, Fox should have turned down the Seal Team Six member, even knowing that other news outlets like CBS or CNN would likely jump at the opportunity to do the same exclusive interview with him. If Fox News had done this, they not only might have won my and many peoples respect, but also would have set a very important precedent that is much needed in journalism today – doing the right thing.

Equally, I was shocked by the number of media outlets that jumped to disseminate the embarrassing Sony Studio emails and other private and personal information of executives and employees.  Everyone was aware that this information was stolen and released to the public by hackers. We live in the age of WikiLeaks, but there is a fundamental difference between a whistle blower and a hacker. The latter is always theft and extortion. I have no problem with media reporting the hacking, even debating the state actors behind it and investigating the fingerprint of the hackers, but institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post should have stopped short of sharing the stolen information. They can and will probably justify their actions using “Bartnicki vs Vopper,” where the Supreme Court ruled that “...the playing of illegally intercepted material under these circumstances was constitutionally protected, at least when the broadcaster wasn’t involved in the illegal interception...” (Source: Washington Post Article). They are legally within their rights, but my point is not about legality. It has to do with guiding principles and ethics; things that used to be the cornerstones of our society and journalism just a few decades ago. My expectation would have been for these outlets to refrain from publishing any of the stolen information; leaving that to less reputable sites. A refusal to publish would also have sent a very strong message to future hackers and served as a great disincentive to take the risk. It is notoriety, through widespread exposure, that drives these cowardly criminals.

Media outlets who want to be regarded as respectable should consider hacked information off-limits, much the way eBay considers stolen goods listing unacceptable or how Sotheby’s will not try to auction a painting for which the provenance is in serious doubt. Doing so will draw an important ethical line in the sand which is so desperately missing in journalism today - integrity. They may also gain our respect and their eyeballs, as others start to follow suit.

1 comment:

  1. I stopped watching the "news" long ago...I hate to think how much worse it will become. As for longtime print institutions sharing stolen information...shame on them, it's despicable--who's side are they on? Let's just hope that karma won't catch up to them the same way.

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