Thursday, July 23, 2009

Should “New Media” Mean New Rules?

We all know that media is changing. Many journalists see that technology is a double-edged sword, streaming important news to us faster than ever before, while also cutting away at trustworthy, ethically obtained news stories.

technology continues to affect the dependability of our information, media ethics will be at the forefront of the conversation. Since the process of gathering, writing and publishing information now takes only minutes, and as the competition to get the story out seconds before your competitors intensifies, is it necessary to relax accepted journalistic standards?The South Carolina newspaper The State recently published e-mails, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, between a number of different media outlets and the office of Gov. Mark Sanford. The e-mails contain what is best described as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” negotiating.

Washington Times Radio staffer Joseph Deoudes wrote Gov. Sanford’s communications director Joel Sawyer promising Gov. Sanford would “be on friendly ground” if he chose to speak on Washington Times Radio. WACH morning anchor Tim Miller promised not to “bash” Gov. Sanford like other media organizations might be apt to do. And ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper sent e-mails to Sawyer saying negative things about NBC’s coverage of Gov. Sanford’s affair, implying that ABC would not project such a disapproving point of view on the subject.

Many journalists and citizens alike have objected to these actions, because they inhibit the public’s access to unbiased information. But many media organizations have argued that these days it’s not so much about getting the news right, but getting the news first.

At a recent Commonwealth Club event on the terrible status of newspapers, Phil Bronstein, Executive Vice President and Editor at Large of the San Francisco Chronicle, talked about how sources have now become citizen journalists. “ You cannot ignore, nor should you ignore, the ubiquity of the public, the access to information that the public has that professional journalists often don’t have,” said Bronstein.

Some news organizations today point out the fact that the same technology that increases the pressure to publish stories first -- and leads to more relaxed vetting of information -- is also increasing the ability of citizens to fact check the information of news stories themselves. People on all sides of the news, from journalists to readers, are having time cut in half: Journalists have half the time they used to, to check the facts. Readers only need half the time they used to, to point out errors.

So maybe our next step is to have journalist print a story as fast as possible and leave it up to the public to check the facts. But then what really is the point of journalism? Perhaps people could just pass around information themselves by writing their own news stories on their own blogs, allowing stories to be as subjective as they want, leaving it up to others to find out what is truth, what is exaggeration and what are simply lies. But there still is one major advantage that real media organizations have over all us bloggers: their legitimacy. As Bronstein pointed out, holding people and organizations accountable is simply not something that bloggers can do with the expediency of legitimate news organizations.

On August 19, The Club will host an event called Predicting the Future of Media. Panelists -- including representatives from YouTube, the Associated Press and the Center for Investigative Reporting -- will discuss what traditional media will have to do to stay in the game while new media keeps changing the rules.

The once most trusted man in America famously said about journalists, “Our job is only to hold up the mirror -- to tell and show the public what has happened.” Many would argue against a change to Walter Cronkite’s standard of journalism without a long hard look at what it will mean for our proud history of freedom of press.

Consider this: A Time Magazine online poll published today shows Jon Stewart as the new most trusted newscaster in America, winning with 44 percent. In second place was Brian Williams with 29 percent, third place went to Charlie Gibson with 19 percent and in fourth place was Katie Couric with 7 percent. This poll is quite telling, because out of all these newscasters, Stewart is the only one whose show, “The Daily Show,” is broadcast on Comedy Central.

A comedian as the new Walter Cronkite? In a way, it makes sense that people would trust a man whose job it is to make fun of people. Unlike the press who embarrassed themselves over the Sanford affair, he is probably less likely to promise any corporation or political party or person “friendly ground” for an interview or agree to allow only positive framing of an issue. Friendly ground and positive framing don’t make for lots of laughter, after all – as Jim Cramer found out when he got a very unfriendly grilling by Stewart earlier this year. And when we are faced with the behavior of the media in Sanford affair, which many have publicly denounced, people might well conclude that it seems smarter to trust a guy who appears to not owe anything to anyone.

--Camille Koué


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