Different set of journalism ethics across the pond

The controversy involving media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s
now-defunct tabloid, News of the World, sullies the entire
journalism profession and gives ammunition to our biggest
critics.
The controversy involving media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct tabloid, News of the World, sullies the entire journalism profession and gives ammunition to our biggest critics. It also presents a good opportunity to clarify the differences between mainstream American journalism and the shoddy work now under the microscope in Britain.

Both models aim to inform the public, not just as a public service but also as a business. Where we sharply part ways is on the question of priority – is it on the business or on the public service? The Murdoch case exposed the lengths to which some would go to win readership and maximize profits, even if it meant badly compromising journalistic ethics.

These are difficult times for the industry, and newspapers need every dollar they can get – but not if it means sacrificing integrity and trust. That’s why American mainstream newspapers remain dedicated to certain basic principles.

For example, reporters and editors must not: Lie, mislead or knowingly publish mistruths from others.

Misrepresent themselves in their work.

Use illegal means to obtain information.

News of the World went off the deep end, as have other British papers. Reporters and editors made conscious decisions to break the law and hack phones. Some deliberately misled the public afterward.

In the July 10 final edition, News of the World columnist Fraser Nelson drew his own distinctions between the American and British journalistic models, noting that U.S. press freedoms survive while Britain’s are endangered. In Britain, he wrote, “it’s a battle, and one the press is now losing. No one can deny that, for this newspaper, the mortal blow was self-inflicted.”

These were time-honored practices. In the early 1990s, Murdoch-owned publications published transcripts of hacked phone conversations between Prince Charles and his lover, Camilla Parker Bowles. Tabloids relentlessly pursued them and Princess Diana for years, contributing to tragic consequences. Yet only recently has British society demanded an accounting.

Does American journalism claim to be above it all? Hardly. U.S. journalists have erred egregiously and helped undermine public trust, too. Newspapers even published information knowing that it was obtained through illegal means, as both the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks cases underscore.

In those two cases, however, journalists didn’t provoke the legal violations, and publication of the information was solely to inform the public. In the Pentagon Papers case, at least, the Supreme Court sided with the public’s right to know.

The fact that American journalism faces serious financial challenges is, perhaps, a testament to our commitment to basic principles. Big tabloid headlines, paid-for scandals and page-three photos of semi-nude women might sell newspapers for Murdoch. But if that’s what it takes to survive, we’ll pass, thank you.

~ Dallas Morning News

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