Discussing newspapers in the 21st century commonly entails a narrative of impending extinction arising from technological, demographic, and cultural change. This article reports on research into three Australian newspapers (two broadsheet, one tabloid) that is concerned, in the first instance, with the concept of ‘tabloidization’, and the proposition that identifiable tabloid properties, such as the simplification and spectacularization of news, are increasingly characteristic of contemporary newspapers. Adaptive changes to newspaper design, style, and content in the interests of survival and renewal are addressed through quantitative content analysis in tracking formal changes to newspapers, and qualitative research through interviews with journalists in exploring their everyday negotiation of the role and trajectory of newspapers. These questions of industrial context, textual form, occupational practice, professional ideology, and politico-cultural judgment are raised in seeking to understand the dynamics of the shifting forms and contested readings of contemporary newspapers through a critically reflexive analysis of tabloidization discourse and process.
War of the Worlds by Robert Czarny
Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Professor Pierson and I made the eleven miles from Princeton in ten minutes. Well, I . . . I hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern "Arabian Nights." Well, I just got here. I haven't had a chance to look around yet. I guess that's it. Yes, I guess that's the . . . thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force. The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down. What I can see of the . . . object itself doesn't look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I've seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder. It has a diameter of . . . what would you say, Professor Pierson?
Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grover’s Mill by telephone. Just a moment. At least forty people, including six state troopers lie dead in a field east of the village of Grover’s Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition. The next voice you hear will be that of Brigadier General Montgomery Smith, commander of the state militia at Trenton, New Jersey.
Orson Welles read this script of War of the Worlds adapted from H.G.Wells’ novel of the same name during a CBS Mercury Theater on the Air episode in a famous incident that caused panic among the station’s six million listeners. The broadcast included a statement of its fictional origin at the beginning of the program but was timed to begin its earnest similarity to a news bulletin 12 minutes into the program to capture listeners from the more popular Chase and Sandborn Hour just as they cut away to dance music. Their show format was well known and featured the most popular radio personalities of the time. The timing and Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater program was designed to lure listeners away from their competitor at Chase and Sandborn as they channel-surfed during the dance music interlude on the program. It was a calculated and deliberate attempt to increase the listening audience and gain Welles’ infamy. It did both. Almost two million people believed an alien invasion was actually in progress and another one and half million were genuinely frightened by the news bulletin interruptions to regular programming that narrated the invasion of Martians on Planet Earth.
It was so convincing that some people grabbed firearms, herded their families into autos, and set out for the mountains. Gasoline was demanded at gunpoint and water towers were fired upon when they were mistaken for Martian space vehicles. In fact, the timing couldn’t have been more suited to paranoia and panic. This was just prior to World War II and Hitler himself derided the program citing it as evidence of the corruption inherent in Democracy. This incident is seen as watering down subsequent real incidents of horror such as the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, Chernobyl and others.
This is not the first nor last episode of using sensationalism and crowd psychology and public hysteria for social manipulation and personal and corporate gain. The CBS network faced sanctions because of the irresponsible use of public airwaves after the program, but not censorship. In the end, this episode was about circulation, consumers and market share.
Sensationalism, crowd psychology and hysteria have given us the witch trials, McCarthyism, tabloid journalism, war propaganda, Hitler’s ‘solution to the Jewish problem, ‘ impeachment of a president, ruination from scandals, racism, genocide, misguided crusades, war and so many other ills foisted by humanity onto humanity. Fictional accounts sensationalized, presented as truth and “breaking news” in modern times have destroyed careers, lives and people.
Salem Witch Trials
Those who question in words or print the Machiavellian nature and ethics of such means to predetermined ends and hidden agendas are themselves often equally vilified. Philosophers and writers who questioned the methods of the witch trials and convictions, for example, were imprisoned themselves when they spoke out against the religiously motivated violence of the Puritans who dominated the local culture at that time. Puritanical beliefs disallowed rights for children and unmarried or widowed women adding political motive to the trials as land holdings were forfeit by women accused.
Those who question the true intent of religious fervor and the divisiveness of any doctrine of separation are often considered dark figures in their own time only to be found brilliant with insight and wisdom at a future time. They too have been imprisoned, persecuted, vilified and in modern culture, subjected to "witch hunts" and “hits” which meant a price on their heads. Salman Rushdie suffered such an attack for writing Satanic Verses, denounced as heresy by Muslim Cleric Ayatollah Khomeini who declared a fatwa on him and called for his assassination.
Tactics to inflame and change sentiment have seemed politically motivated. The modern version appears to be purely driven by circulation and profit. Is this too, a modern-day hoax perpetrated upon an unsuspecting audience?
Hitler used hype, propaganda and a philosophy of inferiority from his bully pulpit to murder more than six million Jewish citizens. Sensational accusations both verbal and in print defined McCarthyism in the paranoid culture of the Cold War era as members of society were labeled “communist” or “traitors” to their homeland and persecuted with public verbal floggings and blacklisting.
Racism defined the decade of late fifties to sixties as leaders like Martin Luther King rallied for equality and an end to racial discrimination. Words inflamed then. And before that colonists found reason to label as “savages” the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This indigenous, racial, cultural, ethic “inferiority” is inflamed by words and by words committed to permanency in print or other means.
Religious persecution, envy, jealousy, hysteria and the need for attention feed the obsession for finding evidence of the devil operating in people metaphorically and materially. It seems that human shadow finds reason to envy light in others and seeks to actively recruit and convert it to shadow. “Come to the dark side” says the character Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga- a modern version of an old villain and an old battle: the dark side of human nature vs. the light.
A modern darkside highlighting the darkness-light struggle of human nature can be found in media and in particular, in tabloid journalism. The salacious, sensational, darkest and most titillating news makes headlines and makes money for those who peddle the darkest and most unsavory side of human nature. What in the human does this speak to? And as humans and consumers, are we aware of it, its affects and impact on people? And if so or even if not, are we complicit in our own darkness?
Burroughs Welcome and Company Advertisement, 1895
The etymology of “Tabloid” in 1884 is from a trademark of the Burroughs Welcome and Company, a nineteenth century pharmaceutical company in England that produced medicine originally in powder form. The tabloid was a pill made by compressing the powder into small bullet-like pills called tabloids, tablets and later tabs. The oid suffix is from oeides meaning like. By 1898, tabloid was being used figuratively to mean a compressed form or small dose of anything. The small newspaper with condensed articles was nicknamed the tabloid.
Alfred Harmsworth (1865-1922,) the first Viscount of Northcliffe made his publishing fortune with an empire that rescued failing newspapers and transforming them into pop culture news tabs that he used to influence public opinion and bring down institutions.
In the context of journalism, “tabloid” referred to the size of the newspaper and its abbreviated content. It has since evolved to mean a sensationalized newspaper with sometimes barely truthful content and even to include television which highlights celebrity news and scandals.
The tabloid industry began in earnest in England and tends to emphasize topics such as sensationalcrime stories, astrology, gossip about the personal lives of celebrities and sports stars, and junk news. Often, tabloid newspaper allegations about the sexual practices, drug use, or private conduct of celebrities is borderline defamatory; in many cases, celebrities have successfully sued for libel, demonstrating that tabloid stories have defamed them. It is this sense of the word that led to some entertainment news programs to be called tabloid television. Tabloid newspapers are sometimes pejoratively called the gutter press.
Celebrities don’t always sue because of the time, energy and money investment in countering all the salacious tabloid libel because they realize that they would be in court almost every day. The tabloids count on that fact to escape culpability and are unscathed by the occasional judgment against them which is miniscule compared to profits and is “expensed” on balance sheets. The profit margin trumps the occasional lawsuit. The end justifies the means given the bottom line: that financial statements show profit.
Commonly called “Redtops” because of the identifying red headlines at the top, British tabloids tend to sensationalize and very aggressively pursue and feature celebrity gossip, hoaxes and take political positions. They often openly and boldly mock and ridicule the subjects of their stories.
Tabloid journalism was exported to America where the papers are now featured in supermarkets at checkout aisles. American tabs are particularly notorious for their deliberate and over-the-top sensationalizing of stories.
The original American tabloid, The New York Sun, a gaudy example of the penny press made its debut on September 3, 1833 as the handiwork of Benjamin H. Day, a Springfield Massachusetts printer. Other specialty newspapers existed that had been around since colonial times but they were politically motivated and sold by subscription. Since most newspapers required subscriptions paid in advance and cost about ten dollars a year, the penny press became popular because for a penny a day, one could buy The New York Sun instead of a newspaper that might cost a week’s salary in advance for working families. In 1835, the New York Sun published a lengthy report about life on the moon discovered by a scientist with a powerful telescope, something it knew was fictional. Called the “moon hoax” that incident is famous in American journalism. Truth was not highly valued in the columns of The Sun where copy resembled simple and cheap romantic fiction.
James Gordon Bennett Randolph Hearst Joseph Pulitzer
The Sun’s success spawned knock-off competitors and imitators. The Herald was the brainchild of James Gordon Bennett who actually had been a newsman and he built his empire into the most successful and influential newspapers in history. He broke from the partisan press and favored sensationalism and sordid crime stories with flaming headlines. His son, known for his public outrageous escapades took over after Bennett’s death and featured both respectable news and salacious underground drivel and ran thinly disguised advertisements for prostitutes until William Randolph Hearst complained.
The younger Bennett commissioned reporter Stanley with a bent for drama to find missionary David Livingston in Africa. This story was a ploy by The Herald to create an international sensation by not just reporting the news but making the news.
Hearst joined that same tradition with his San Francisco Examiner that borrowed from the doctrine of sensationalism when it gifted the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt with a wine and dine excursion that included a visit to an Opium Den, afterward writing up the lurid details for an expose` in his tabloid. Hearst hired Ambrose Bierce who wrote bitter contemporary columns that necessitated his carrying a pistol to protect himself from infuriated readers. He later hired women who would write expose`s about society’s ills gaining public sympathy (origin of sob story) that Hearst claimed as his mission: champion of the common man and protector of the weak.
Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was Hearst’s competitor who hired “Nellie Bly” (pseudonym) who became one of the first famous female reporters. Pulitzer for whom the “Pulitzer Prize” is named was one of the top sensationalist journalists of his time selling crime, scandal and outrageous stunts. One of the most protracted circulation wars in journalism was waged between The New York World and The New York Morning Journal owned by Hearst. Both papers favored yellow journalism depicting life in New York: they had no hesitation in making news instead of reporting it. The movie Citizen Kane is a barely disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst directed by and starring Orson Welles.
Today’s tabloids such as The Globe, The National Enquirer and The Sun use extremely aggressive and mean-spirited tactics to sell issues. They are distributed through magazine distribution channels like weeklies and paperback books. The validity of the stories in these gutter press samples can be called into question.
The tabloids readily admit to practicing what is called “checkbook journalism” and tout its legitimacy and justify their use of it because ‘everybody practices checkbook journalism.’ This practice refers to paying for stories. There is willingness by tabloids to pay handsomely for information upon which to build their stories. They have publicly admitted that it doesn’t matter if it is truth; it only matters that somebody is willing to say it for a fee they are willing to pay. For a startling example of the tabloids own claim to checkbook journalism, see Frontline Episode “Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal.”
So, if someone is willing to say what the tabloid reporter is looking for—some salacious material about a celebrity or public figure to craft a story, the tab’s corporate headquarters willingly pay large sums of money to “sources.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s true. If it’s not true, they can always print a retraction; but meanwhile the headlines scream scandal and millions of papers sold make millions of dollars. In the tabloid business there are reporters and photographers, sources and ‘breaking news.’ The game is to get a sensational story about a celebrity before your rival can break the story. It’s a world devoid of meticulous fact checking, scrutiny of sources or ethics. The credibility of the source doesn’t matter because the tabloids operate on the letting the cat out of the bag principle. It doesn’t matter if the story is true, what matters are headlines that scream attention. The retraction can come later and is guaranteed to not be front page news but buried in the back of the paper.
In 1993 when the Enquirer, for example, was looking for someone to corroborate the story that Michael Jackson had molested boys, they contacted Ronald Newt Sr. because they learned that Newt’s twin boys spent time at Neverland Ranch as aspiring performers learning from Jackson, their mentor.
The Enquirer offered the Newt boys’ father Ronald, $200,000 to say that something untoward happened to his boys at Neverland with Michael Jackson. David Perell, Editor of the tabloid drew up a contract and the elder Newt refused to sign, saving it for evidence. In actuality, no children ever showed up to trade accusations about Jackson for cash after the scandal broke in 1993.
Ronald Newt said that the editor of the Enquirer coached the Newt family to “say he grabbed you on the butt. Say he grabbed you and touched you in any kind of way.” Perell also told the Newt family that he saw it as incumbent upon the Enquirer to take Michael Jackson down. He wanted to destroy him. He told us he “took all these other famous people down—all the major people that had scandals against them.” He said, 'We take these people down. That's what we do.'"
Celebrities learn to be on guard most of the time and on red alert in certain circumstances. It takes a sixth sense to be able to outthink a paparazzi or reporter dressed as a service or delivery personnel. It is well known too, that celebrities who badmouth tabloids or name names are punished for their indiscretions. Johnny Carson once belittled the Enquirer and found himself the target of a revenge assignment by one of its reporters. The paper tailed Carson for weeks until they got a photo of Sally Fields and him drinking champagne on his balcony. They then spun the story in the most malicious way to do the most damage.
For Brooke Shields’ and Andre Agassi’s wedding, the Globe tabloid surveyed the surrounding landscape and decided a helicopter could not get close enough so they rented a cherry picker—a machine with an aerial hydraulic lift that can reach a height of 100 meters or more. The photographer raised the cherry picker to overlook the wedding and got the pictures for the tabloid. There was nothing that Brooke Shields could do since the intruders were not on her property.
Lady Diana Spencer was the most visible target of the paparazzi and the tabloid press. The tabloids even went so far as to rent a submarine at a cost of $16,000 in order to get a shot of Diana lounging on the beach with a new love interest after her divorce from Charles and her divorce from the royal family. She was considered the most photographed woman in the world during the 15 years she was prominent on the world stage.
Lady Diana’s life was scrutinized at every turn and marked by salacious stories in the British tabloids. She had to learn to court them and employ diplomacy with them to get them to lower their voices about her life and private affairs. The tabloids reported her every move and at any given time there were 14 to 20 reporters tailing her, something she, as a private person, was unaccustomed to. She complained to the queen who set up a meeting with the tabloid editors where they were asked to exercise some discretion and restraint. In fact, nothing changed.
Diana was painted as unstable, dull, ditsy, depressed, and crazy by the British tabloid media. They exposed her anger at Charles who had resumed his affair with Camilla Bowles during their marriage. Diana commented that her marriage was crowded with too many people and that included Charles’ mistress, the royal family and the media. Charles resented that the press was more interested in Diana than him and complained bitterly to his wife that his work as a head of state was not being taken seriously. Diana had not courted the attention; she was simply more interesting.
The tabloids exposed Diana’s post partum depression, a serious and common illness among new mothers. They portrayed her as mentally ill and unstable. She finally spoke frankly about it because she thought it might help others who were struggling with similar issues and to know their princess was flawed and shared a “commoner’s” illness. The tabloid press continued to portray her as unstable and misguided even as she championed the causes of children and an end to landmines as a viable strategy for war and conflict.
Diana knew that her royal children would be subject to the same treatment by the gutter press so she tried to be clever with a kind of cat and mouse game with them to garner favor. Diana saw this as a tactic; the queen reportedly saw it as scandalous betrayal of the royal family’s dignity. Diana learned to trade stories for coverage of her favorite charitable and humanitarian work. The efficacy of this kind of relationship with the press is something most celebrities question. Many claim their personal lives belong to themselves while their contributions to art and culture belong to the public.
The tone of the media changed and the gutter press became more aggressive when Rupert Murdoch began his influential tenure in media. A magnate of the Australian press, he set his sights on the acquisition of media all over the world and acquired significant numbers of media outlets on multiple continents.
Murdoch saw celebrity as a commodity to be tapped and exploited and his minions did exactly that with his acquisitions. His tactics, heavily criticized by the ethical press, politicians and celebrities, included becoming cozy with the leaders of countries and supporting their politics until he was in a position to influence those politics with his newspapers and television holdings which include British, Australian, American and other tabloid markets and the Fox Cable News Network.
In 2009 Murdoch was accused of using private investigators and criminal means to record and expose private messages among the celebrity and royal figures featured in his gutter press. His staffers illegally hacked phones, illegally accessed the target’s bank statements, confidential personal data including tax records, social security files and utility bills. Murdoch's News Group Newspapers paid about $1.6 million in out-of-court settlements to buy silence from public figures whose privacy had been invaded. Those targeted were cabinet ministers, MPs, Actors and sports stars.
The payments were secretly made and evidence was suppressed of hundreds more illegal actions by victims of News Group, the Murdoch company that publishes News of the World and The Sun. Police have initiated inquires into at least 31 reporters and senior executives who illegally accessed records of 2,000 to 3,000 people including senior politicians.
Murdoch's reporters resort to extreme deception and illegal means to garner stories. They have disguised themselves as a sheik to sting celebrities and notables, and even posed as a sports team investor in order to gain an interview where the coach badmouthed his players and was fired. Murdoch’s News of the World boasts on its website that it "offers the biggest payment for stories."
The Conversion to Medialoid
Medialoid is defined as mainstream media infected with tabloid journalism. The conversion occurred because the major news outlets began to relax some standards that had been in place since newspapers and television began. Some attribute partial blame to the O.J. Simpson and other celebrity trials, some to the arrival on the scene of a 24 hour news cycle that began when Ted Turner’s CNN did its first broadcast in 1980; some see it as an erosion over time. Somewhere along the evolution of journalism, the standards and the ethics of the profession and the media relaxed. In some cases they took a vacation; and in others that vacation is permanent. Many lament the loss of journalistic integrity and mourn the bygone days of the kind of professionalism embraced by Walter Cronkite who passed in 2009 and was for his 20 year tenure as a news anchor, considered “the most trusted man in America.”
Gossip columns began to show up in newspapers in the 1930s and the three decades between the 1960s and 1990s saw investigative reporting soar as underground newspapers flourished that were critical of government and contemporary social institutions. The alternative forms of journalism led to uncovering events and activities of government and other groups that normally went unnoticed. Those hot news decades: revealed Watergate, filmed the shootings at Kent State, saw conspiracies swirling around government and other institutions, outed organized crime, covered Black Civil Rights leaders and racial issues, captured riots and violence on tape, monitored the Viet Nam War, highlighted the Pentagon Papers, revealed Iran Contra and other events and saw the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Investigative journalism changed the industry forever because it established a mindset of penetration that continues today.
The line of demarcation between the media and the tabloids began to blur in the nineteen seventies but in 1998 it disappeared completely. That year conservative blogger Matt Drudge released a story about a relationship with then President Clinton and White House Aid Monica Lewinsky after Newsweek Magazine declined to publish it. For the next year the American press all sounded like tabloids as Americans were subjected to detailed information about the president’s private sexual proclivities. The cast of characters and the investigation into the scandal grew wider as time went on until it ended with the impeachment of a president.
The O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials did little to dissuade the media from their trajectory toward tabloid journalism. The trials of celebrities attract a lot of attention. The Simpson trial was televised and the judge was seen as pandering to the cameras in his courtroom; the Michael Jackson trial was not televised but a previously serious venue, Court TV turned tabloid when it reenacted the daily court proceedings for its evening viewers.
Joining the ranks of tabloid and sensationalist television are programs like Hard Copy, Inside Edition, A Current Affair and their domestic and international clones. Reality TV tends to use the same tactics of sensationalism, crowd psychology and public emotional hysteria to gain and keep viewers. Reality TV began with game shows and candid camera type series, and captured more and more viewers with its soap or docudramas like Big Brother and Survivor. It films in a kind of fly-on-the-wall method and features ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, caught up in fluid and changing or extreme situations. The public’s apparent appetite for reality TV has spawned many new shows some of which are exploitive of their cast and that feature a voyeuristic look into people’s private lives. Jon and Kate Plus Eight exploited a Hmong immigrant and his eight children and made their very contentious and public divorce fodder for the tabloids.
Tabloid tactics of cut and paste journalism has leaked into the Internet Blogosphere as well. In a recent case, Andrew Brietbart, conservative Republican commentator and blogger who originally wrote for the Drudge Report, spliced a film of Shirley Sherrod addressing the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in an attempt to paint this State Department Black woman as a racist and to embarrass the Obama Administration. The cable news channels picked up the story, did not fact check it but ran with it which triggered the NAACP and government officials to denounce her and call for her resignation. When the video of her speech was viewed in its entirety, it revealed the questionable journalistic tactics of the blogger and his agenda. It would seem it also might call into question the cable news cycle of repeating unverified information that seeks conflict but not all the facts. Sherrod reportedly plans to sue for damages to her livelihood and reputation. She is but one example of the casualties of tabloid reporting and media gone wild.
Effects of Body Bag Journalism
“If it bleeds, it leads” is often the standard that local and cable news stations use when deciding what and how to broadcast the news of the day on nightly or 24 hour cycle programs. The way news is now reported has increased the negative effects on children according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Those changes include:
television channels and Internet services and sites which report the news 24 hours a day
television channels broadcasting live events as they are unfolding, in "real time"
increased reporting of the details of the private lives of public figures and role models
pressure to get news to the public as part of the competitive nature of the entertainment industry
detailed and repetitive visual coverage of natural disasters and violent acts
While there are issues surrounding parental warnings about sex and violence, increasing concern surrounds news programming. Research shows that children tend to imitate what they see and hear in the news—a contagion called the copy cat effect. Chronic and persistent exposure to violence and aggression can lead to fear, cynicism, desensitization and dehumanization. While actual crime is decreasing, reporting of crimes has increased by 240% and comprises 30% of a broadcast. Media exposure for the average child now is 6 hours per day, more than any other activity except sleep.
A Joint Statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association summarized the effects of violence as follows:
- Viewing violence can lead to emotional desensitization towards violence in real life.
- Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life than children who are not so exposed.
- Children exposed to violence are more likely to assume that acts of violence are acceptable behavior.
- Viewing violence increases fear of becoming a victim of violence, with a resultant increase in self-protective behaviors and a mistrust of others.
The United States Surgeon General’s Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General also summarized the research in this area. A diverse body of research strongly suggests that exposure to violence in the media can increase children’s aggressive behavior in the short term with some studies providing long term evidence of violence.
The work championed by organizations such as Children Now, medical societies and others who call upon the FCC to revisit rules for journalism and programming clearly suggest that body-bag and sensationalized journalism bludgeons them into cynicism, resignation and fear. The more TV watched, the more exaggerated appears the level of crime in society and the stereotypes that accompany that sense of vulnerability as does the tendency to see the world as perpetually dangerous. When children are in the news, which is not often, about 40 to 50 percent of the stories feature them as perpetrators or victims of crimes. This encourages the stereotype of superpredators and encourages vindictive and violent responses to others. Fifty percent of children interviewed said they felt angry, sad or depressed after watching the news.
The first amendment right to free speech strikes grave trepidation in those who seek to make the media more humane and responsible. Censure is a hot topic as is the right to protect one’s sources. There are no official regulatory bodies that govern journalism and in the view of Columbia University, a solution is to implement a seal of approval that insures that media meets certain standard obligations. John Hamer of Columbia proposes something called the TAO of Journalism: Transparency, Accountability and Openness. Hamer says that anything other than some kind of standard for journalism and media is a double standard: “Journalists instinctively react negatively to anything that smacks of licensing, certification regulation, oversight—there is great resistance,” he said. “The attitude is, ‘Nobody can oversee us, we oversee everyone else.’ When you think about it, it’s just a massive double standard.”
The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics for its members. While the ethical standards are admirable, few of their ranks follow their own ethics guidelines:
- Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
- Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
- Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
- Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
- Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
- Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
- Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
- Never plagiarize
- Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
- Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
- Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
- Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
- Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.
Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
- Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
- Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
- Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
- Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
- Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
- Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
- Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
- Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
- Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
- Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
- Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
- Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
There appears to be no real conclusion to the dilemma presented by modern media, or is there? It seems clear that the media, journalism, and television may be entirely out of control in covering the goings on of leaders and celebrities in our culture. The death of Lady Diana, the protracted targeting and caricature-like inaccurate portrayal of Michael Jackson over decades, the impeachment of a president for private bedroom behaviors, the suicide of a White House Counsel Vince Foster because ‘Here in Washington ruining people is considered sport,’ the scandals and outings and name calling and epithets and the obsession with celebrity, getting the dirt and salivating over the prospect of being the first to break the juicy story is as much an indictment of the constituents (consumers) as the perpetrators of this misanthropic means of treating people in an increasingly impolite society.
We have seen evidence that this frenzy of voyeurism and the need to know all the gore or juicy details of someone else’s private life causes societal ills and does not benefit our children or our own humanity. Tabloid journalism kills people. Diana died in a car accident while being chased the multi-thousandth time by paparazzi. Michael Jackson was darkly exploited by the media for profit over years and was unjustly accused of unspeakable acts toward children in an extortion attempt, yet many still do not know he was innocent because his exoneration and the details were not widely reported. Journalists went for the sordid details of the accusations instead of the dismantling of its veracity through cross examination. The negative aspects of an event become the focus because that is what gets attention, that is what sells the product and keeps the gutter press in business.
Where are the lines drawn of civility, good taste, kindness, compassion, empathy, dignity, respect, professionalism and humane restraint? When consumers consume products without examining their own habits and the effects of those habits, or they thoughtlessly consume products that harm others regularly for profit, they are complicit in the demeaning and destruction of others and of their own humanity. When the humanity of others means so little, the whole race suffers dehumanization. The soul of humanity splinters as does the psyche. It’s a deep and haunting wounding that lingers and permeates the collective consciousness.
Increasing tolerance and psychological anesthesia toward the slaying of others’ images, reputations, livelihoods, life’s work and privacy becomes a cultural meme that indicts each of the members and it’s whole. When an industry tolerates the death of one global humanitarian and the slow slaying of another over time, and the consumers of that industry do nothing, more casualties will come. It’s inevitable. The editors of the tabloid press have admitted their culpability in the death of Lady Diana but nothing appears to have changed. Does this practice of using the avenue of communications and media to create larger-than-life personas built to pinnacles only to serve as fulcrums for their demise at our hands and minds, constitute nothing less than a modern day gladiator sport?
Both Princess Diana and Michael Jackson were globally recognized cheerleaders for humanity evidenced by their body of work. Both leveraged their fame to become global humanitarians and philanthropic stars. Had Bill Clinton been completely humiliated never to recover belying the comeback kid moniker he earned, the humanitarian relief response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, the response to 9/11, the Asian Tsunami and other disasters would have claimed more casualties because Clinton has the charisma to inspire and mobilize philanthropy. When asked, he stepped up to help. None of these globally recognized humanitarians turned their back on humanity when they had every reason to do just that. Humanity didn’t treat them very well.
The real question becomes: when we portray ourselves in this light of intolerance, demonstrate glee at the downfall of others, what do we do to our own psyches? What do we do to our own humanity? How does humanity lose both now and in the future from this brand of inhumane treatment? And how then do we create peace or a humane narrative on this planet for the humans who inhabit and inherit it? Maybe it’s a contemporary question worth looking into because it defines who we are as humans, it defines our humanity and it determines our future.
Text, Discussion Questions and Bibliography were written by: Reverend Barbara Kaufmann
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law "respecting an establishment of religion." impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.
- What does “freedom of speech” mean? What does it mean for/to you?
- What does “freedom of the press” mean? What does it mean for/to you?
- Do you regularly read any newspapers, magazines or periodicals? What do you read and why?
- Do you regularly watch certain TV programs? What do you watch and why?
- Do you listen to talk radio? What do you listen to and why?
- When you read publications, watch TV or listen to talk radio, what are you expecting from those media?
- How might media, journalism and television have a bias? Be slanted? Why would that happen? How?
- Do you expect the media to report the truth? Why or why not? How do you feel about media that invents or distorts the truth? How do you feel about being asked to be a consumer of non-truths?
- How do you feel about “checkbook journalism?” Is it fair? Legitimate? Morally right? Discuss.
- As a consumer of media, how are you impacted by that media? What are your expectations? Do you apply standards to the media? What are they?
- Do you believe the media are fair? Accurate? Humane? What examples can you give?
- As a consumer, do you feel you have a right to expect certain standards from media? What standards?
- As a consumer of media, do you feel you have some say or some power over what is printed or shared publicly? Or do you feel powerless?
- Do you have an opinion about corporate media? How do you feel about one owner owning most of the newsprint or airwaves? Explain. Do you feel it can be beneficial or detrimental to the consuner? How?
- Do you believe the media should follow its own guidelines with respect to what is published or reported? Why or why not?
- Do you feel that the public has a right to know what goes on in government? In the private lives of citizens? In the private lives of celebrities? Why or why not?
- Have you ever felt concern, pride, skepticism, disgust with what is being reported or how it is reported? Do you make your feelings known? How? Why do you or why do you not make them known?
- Many people have expressed their exasperation with media and how journalism and broadcasting has devolved from the high standards of the past that included fact checking and confirming sources and information from multiple sources before publishing something as fact. If people are fed up with the media how could they go about making their feelings known? How do you think that might change things?
- The media position is that they only provide what the public clamors for. You are the public. Do you feel powerless or powerful to change things? Would you consider changing your habits and your consumption of materials to support your position?
- In your opinion, is the media out of control? Why or why not? Should it change? How or why?
- Who do you believe media has the power to harm? Do you think it has harmed? How?
- Do you believe the media has constructed, hastened or created someone’s demise? If so, in what way? How do you feel about that?
- Do you believe the media has killed people? Why or why not? If so, how? How do you feel about that?
- Should the media target certain individuals? Why or why not? How do you feel about damage to an individual? Should the media be more humane? How?
- What does “fifteen minutes of fame” mean? Discuss. How would you feel and what would you do if it were your turn for the famous “fifteen minutes of fame” and the coverage was positive? What about a negative “fifteen minutes of fame?” Could that destroy your relationships? Your career? Your reputation? Your life? Discuss.
- Do you “vote with your dollars?” In other words, if something is sub-par to standards or needs restructuring how does the consumer go about letting the vendor know?
- If it were prudent to change media and how it is presented or consumed, how would you go about doing that while protecting the first amendment? Can it be done? How? Convene in groups and brainstorm ways this could be accomplished.
Guardian.Co.UK. “News of the World Phone Hacking,” Murdoch Papers Paid I Million Pounds to Gag Phone-hacking Victims, July 8, 2009
The Guardian is a tabloid newspaper published in the United Kingdom
Schaffer, Jack. “Murdoch’s News of The World Steps in It,” Slate Online Magazine, July 9,2009
Slate is a subsidiary of the Washington Post
PBS Frontline Documentary Series
Public Broadcasting Service’s film division produced a series of documentaries under the name Frontline
The Sunday Times
British Broadsheet Newspaper
Douglass, Susan. The Progressive: B-Net Reference Publications, April 1997
Jones, Clarence. Winning With the News Media: A Self Defense Manual when You’re the Story, 2005
A book by Clarence Jones Public Relations and Media Consultant
Cohen, Daniel. Yellow Journalism: Scandal, Sensationalism and Gossip in the Media, 2000.
Book: Twenty First Century Books publisher.
Kast, Marlise Elizabeth. Tabloid Prodigy, 2007.
Book: Running Press Publishers
Kearns, Burt. Tabloid Baby, 1999
Book: Celebrity Books Publisher
American Online News Journal: Ariana Huffington Editor and Nationally Syndicated Columninst
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
National professional medical association dedicated to treating and improving the quality of life for children, adolescents, and families affected by mental and psychological disorders.
Children Now Amicus Brief and petitions to FCC
Children Now is a Research and Advocacy Organization that champions the rights of children
Columbia Journalism Review
Bi-monthly magazine publication of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Society of Professional Journalists
America’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Drafted journalism’s code of ethics and works to inspire and educate current and future journalists through professional development.
Princess Diana: “Editors admit guilt over death:” Telegraph.Co. UK Online Journal
Story by By Andrew Pierce, Published: 21 Aug 2007
The Telegraph is a British online journal
Miriam Webster Dictionary
Mixing It Up: Ishmael Reed, 2008
Book: Da Capo Press Publisher
“One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History:” Charles Thomson, June 13, 2010
American Online News Journal: Ariana Huffington Editor and Nationally Syndicated Columninst
BBC Interview Martin Bashir
British Public Broadcasting Company, London
The Princess and the Press: Frontline Published Interviews with reporters speaking about Lady Diana:
Harry Arnold was royal reporter for The Sun, 1976-1990. He and his partner, photographer Arthur Edwards, were charged with getting the latest scoops on Charles and Diana.
Lord W. F. Deedes was editor of the Daily Telegraph (1974-1986) and currently is a columnist for the paper.
Arthur Edwards is royal photographer for The Sun and teamed up with The Sun's royal reporter, Harry Arnold, in covering Princess Diana and the Royal Family.
Roy Greenslade was editor of The Daily Mirror, 1990-1991, and assistant editor at The Sun for six years.
Glenn Harvey is a freelance photographer who covered Princess Diana.
Max Hastings was editor of The Daily Telegraph, 1986-1995.
Anthony Holden is the author of two books on Prince Charles.
Simon Jenkins was editor of The Times, 1990-1992.
Ken Lennox was royal photographer for The Daily Mirror, 1986-1994.
Andrew Morton is a royal reporter who has written several books on the Royal Family, including Diana: Her True Story, on which Princess Diana secretly collaborated.
Richard Stott was editor of The Daily Mirror, 1991-1992.
James Whitaker has reported on the Royal Family since the 1960s. He is The Daily Mirror's royal reporter.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is columnist for The Sunday Telegraph.
Friedman, Roger. Interview with Fox News