The recent flap over NBC news anchor, Brian William’s, self-aggrandized reporting highlights an even larger problem with the way American news is packaged and delivered to a passive audience.
In 2010, Martin Moore director of the Media Standards Trust, offered ten basic principles of journalism which I present below, edited for length.
- Public interest: to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time.
- Truth and accuracy: to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.
- Verification: to disclose as much as possible about multiple sources and perspectives, which is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment.
- Fairness: to offer impartial information.
- Distinguishing fact and comment: to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
- Accountability: to rectify any published information which is found to be harmfully inaccurate.
- Independence: to be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
- Transparency: to attribute all information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative, attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
- Restraint: to judge each situation involving the inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, the public good and the public’s right to be informed in the light of common sense, humanity and the public’s rights to know.
- Originality: to use original content, language and phrasing. No plagiarizing.
Since the 60 Minutes newzine broke ground in the late 60’s, the delivery of news to the American public has shifted from strictly principled reporting of journalists like David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith, and what we see from most other news coverage around the world, to a stage performance of news. Sixty Minutes and the prime time newzines that followed shifted news from strictly information to entertainment. Americans tune in to pretty faces and smooth, folksy delivery. Anchors and field reporters have become our friends. We notice what they wear to the distraction of what they say. The lone news anchor morphed into a team, usually a male/female duo who banter like siblings on a set that varies from techspacular to living room familiar—depending on what time of day.
On the heels of the prime time newzines, came the late night shows which crept innocently into the newssphere. Now, overworked and disenchanted people collapse in front of TVs and tablets to get their news cloaked in comedy and satire. We love our media talent: our Lettermans, Stewarts, Colberts and Olivers. We don’t expect sanitized news as much as we expect satirical, funny or exciting news. We love seeing our anchors out in the field, hanging onto a lamp post during a hurricane, dodging sniper fire in the cobblestone streets of someone else’s neighborhood. We don’t want to hear what they say, we want to see how they say it. Instead of delivering the news, our anchors and reporters have become the news—celebrities to be interviewed by other celebrities for a spellbound and tragedy-numb audience.
So, Brian Williams trapped himself with his own puffed up reporting. Was this an honest mistake as his defenders claim, or was it the worst possible case of a trusted reporter lying through his teeth to look good to his audience? Is his six-month suspension without pay enough of a penalty for his “mistake”?
More important to me is what does this affair tell us about our news? Are we, in our demands for entertainment, partly responsible for pushing our journalists beyond the boundaries of professional journalism? Is it ethical for a journalist to sit on the comfy late-night set of an entertainment show as the “featured guest of the evening?” What happened to journalists serving public interest with verifiable truth and accuracy, accountability, fairness,transparency, and independence? Have we forced journalists to be pretty faces, constantly dependent upon keeping us, their audience entertained and their ratings up?