To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
Truthiness In The News: Why Fox & MSNBCHave Different News Stories
I had the pleasure of eating lunch with the managing editor of the San Antonio Express News, Brett Thacker, recently.Brett is known for running an ethical newspaper, and I had some questions that I thought he could help me with. I had also heard that he was very involved with the Gridiron show each year, which is a funny musical sendup of all things political from the prior year performed by folks who work in news and media in San Antonio. Since Ethics Follies®is a similar production about ethics in law and business, I thought I'd seek his advice. This year, Ethics Follies, to be held on September 29 and 30, is putting a big emphasis on journalism, advertising and social media ethics issues. There's a little extra pressure to have a topical show this year because we have been asked to perform for the Association of Corporate Counsel's National Conference in San Antonio, at the Gonzalez Convention Center. We don't usually have thousands of people in the audience, so I thought I'd put a little extra work in on the script.
Before my lunch with Brett, I did some research and found the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. The main focus of the code is for journalists to be honest, fair and courageous in their reporting of information. It makes clear that staged news is not good news, and that writing misleading news headlines or teasers is unethical. It recognizes that people rely on fair news reporting. There is an inherent duty for journalists to make every effort to report without interpreting the news with their own political agenda. The code is helpful and I believe that most journalists try to follow it. The Express News here in San Antonio is a good example of a newspaper that consistently tries to be objective. The San Antonio Business Journal is also a great example of fair reporting.
One of the interesting topics that came up in our meeting was the fact that many national news channels blur news with entertainment and marketing. An example is the difference between the stories selected to be included on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Many people would say Fox is more conservative than MSNBC. However, the code would suggest they shouldn't be any different since reporters have a duty to keep their own politics out of the story. But reporters are human and have strong beliefs that sometimes filter information and create a spin on a story. Driving news toward entertainment is the measurable fact that the more political and divisive the news is, the higher the show's ratings become. CNN has tried to stay between Fox and MSNBC, and has dropped in the ratings because no one is screaming at the camera. Glenn Beck, however, hit pay dirt when he took the risk a few years ago to become the conservative television personality that would drive liberals to use F-bombs on the air. The more outrageous Mr. Beck is on his television show, the more money he makes. He is a franchise, following in the footsteps of Rush Limbaugh and others. Reporting the news objectively is no longer an option when there were millions to be made by sensationalizing the news. Shock value sells. There are liberal news entertainers as well marketing to the other end of the political spectrum.
Brett said something that really resonated with me. He said that people gravitate towards news they want to hear . . . news that reinforces what they already believe. I can see how this is true both in print and on television. If the goal is to have more subscribers or viewers, a news program would easily be tempted to abandon the Journalists' Code of Ethics and give people what they want - their own views . . . reinforced.
Another memorable example of a reporter abandoning the Code of Ethics was the interview of Sarah Palin by Katie Couric. Ms. Couric probably didn't intend to aggressively cross-examine Sarah Palin during her first campaign trail interview, but Ms. Couric's emotions and loyalty to the campaign of candidate Obama were apparent in her questions. There was little objectivity or fairness after Ms. Couric found some weak spots in Ms. Palin's armor. Ms. Palin was damned the minute she walked onto the soundstage . . . well, because of that and her lack of understanding of President Bush's programs.
The journalist's duty of objectivity and fairness is an important balance to the First Amendment right to free speech. With the right of free speech in place, journalists take on some limiters as part of their profession. Reporters have an obligation to not further their own agendas without disclosing that's what they are doing.
The question then becomes, where do news consumers go for information that is not spun in a particular political direction if every outlet of news has aligned itself with a political party or entertainment market? As comedian Jon Stewart of the Daily Show said recently, his show has not moved toward legitimate news reporting as has been said in the entertainment media. The mainstream media has moved more toward the style of Comedy Central with regard to antics, yelling, "breaking story" banners on almost every story, and news readers who could also freelance as fashion models.
It would appear that the traditional published newspaper is one of the only places where news is delivered in a careful manner with as little spin as possible. For example, Scott Huddleston, who has been a reporter for the Express News for decades, is as dependable a news source as one can find. Donna Tuttle, a writer for the San Antonio Business Journal, cannot be heard in her articles since she is the objective deliverer of news and information.
Other issues we discussed were "shadow" or "watermark" advertisements in print, where only a faint image of an ad can be seen as a border behind a news story. This blending of marketing and news is not favored by most newspapers. It is the concern I have about WOAI's Ask the Expert, where advertisers are featured in what appears to be a news interview about a topic, like roof repair or tax preparation, and WOAI News appears to endorse the service as "expert" in nature. This blurring of the line between news reporting and selling is problematic in that it would be reasonable for a consumer to believe that WOAI has done some research about the "expert" before mixing them into a newscast. The use of perceived reporters' objectivity to sell products and services is certainly a violation of the Society of Professional Journalism Code of Ethics. You too can be an "expert" on television for a few thousand bucks a month. This disturbing lack of journalism ethics is bandied about on morning television.
This year's Ethics Follies will parody these and other media ethics issues. To reserve your seats, please visit www.ethicsfollies.com. And just so I'm fully transparent and ethical, I want you to attend this event, and I am not just reporting about it. LOL.