James Shott / January 2, 2015

News Media Decline in Credibility Took Less Than a Hundred Years

Some recent media meltdowns call attention in the worst way to the continuing failures of much of the American news and information media. Bad judgment and abandonment of basic principles in three recent cases call attention to a long-standing slide from respectability to corruption for the nation’s news purveyors. Some examples from the recent past include:

First, the Rolling Stone rape story, in which contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote about a female freshman at the University of Virginia identified as “Jackie,” detailing an alleged sexual assault by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Ms. Erdely did a poor job of fact-checking the story and failed to interview key individuals involved in the episode. The story was unfit to be printed in any credible publication, and caused quite a bit of turmoil at UVA.

In defense of this journalistic malfeasance, the following notion has been floated: “Just because it wasn’t true in the Rolling Stone case doesn’t mean it isn’t true somewhere.” Such foolishness is a common defense of beliefs thought to be so important that truth takes second place.

Although Rolling Stone is a pop culture magazine, not a “real” news source, it is not excused from following the rules.

The New York Daily News, however, is a real news source, and has no excuse for this failure:

“Sarah Palin has gone rogue again - this time, giving her fans a fleshy surprise as a holiday gift,” wrote Adam Edelman in the Daily News, describing a video of Ms. Palin.

“In the episode, Palin demonstrates how to make her favorite iteration of blueberry pie, but as she delicately kneads the dough, her sweater falls down to her arms, revealing a whole lot of sun-kissed Alaskan skin and a sexy black undergarment,” wrote Mr. Edelman, a political writer for the paper.

Clearly implying that Ms. Palin was deliberately provocative, the headline blared: “Ho, ho, ho! Sarah Palin wishes fans holiday cheer as sweater falls down,” alleging she “gifted them with the naughtiest Christmas present of all – flesh.”

Perhaps Ms. Palin’s good looks dazed Mr. Edelman, confusing him about what he saw. Or didn’t see. She wasn’t wearing a sweater, as anyone who watched the video knows. The political writer’s imagination ran wild, and visions of underthings danced in his head.

It appears the delicious opportunity to ridicule Ms. Palin easily overpowered whatever journalistic ethics he and the newspaper might once have had.

For the third example, when a white police officer in Ferguson, MO shot and killed an 18 year-old black youth, the media widely portrayed the black youth as a gentle giant who had his hands up in surrender, saying “don’t shoot.”

The reaction to this seemingly tragic event was swift and angry. And wrong.

You see, it never happened. The “gentle giant,” Michael Brown, who was a giant, but was anything but gentle, had just minutes before the confrontation with officer Darren Wilson stolen cigars from a store and assaulted a store worker, disobeyed the police officer’s lawful instructions to move out of the middle of the street, attacked the police officer in his car and attempted to take his gun, then ran from the police officer. An autopsy revealed that he had marijuana in his blood, and according to grand jury testimony, never put his hands up and never said, “don’t shoot.” Instead, he attacked the officer again and died from gunshot wounds in response to his attack.

The media rushed to judgment, accepting without examination the idea that an innocent 18 year-old black youth was murdered while he was surrendering to police with his hands up. Was it because this scenario fit the preconceived notions of much of the mainstream media?

It is the reporter’s duty to scrupulously avoid injecting opinion in his or her reporting, and to carefully label unverified information, so that those in the audience have reliable information from which to form their opinions.

American journalist and educator Walter Williams founded the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri in 1908, and in 1914 created the Journalist’s Creed. Among the elements of the Creed are the following:

  • I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of responsibility, trustees for the public; that all acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.

  • I believe that clear thinking, clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.

Now, one hundred years after its creation, after witnessing so much news coverage that falls so far short of the lofty standards of the Journalist’s Creed, one may justifiably wonder whether the Creed was ever a part of the training of so many practitioners, or has merely been forsaken by them, and is as carefully concealed from journalism students as so much information is hidden from the public by our government.

The three examples listed previously only scratch the surface of the of the failure of modern news journalism to adhere to its moral and ethical mandate. Like our nation’s founding principles, journalism’s ethics and morality need to be restored.

James Shott is a columnist for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, and publishes his columns on several Websites, including his own, Observations.

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