May 30th, 2007
Is it unethical when journalists don’t do their jobs well?
By Nerissa Young
The query from the University of Montana journalism graduate student caught me off guard.
“My basic thesis is that over-reporting on select incidents leaves less room for reporting on vital issues,” she wrote. She defined an incident as the Virginia Tech massacre and an issue as global warming.
Her message described three scenarios in which she felt journalists were unethical because of the lack of coverage. She wanted to know what I thought.
The three scenarios she posed as evidence of lack of issues coverage were the HIV travel ban, federal funding for privately run pregnancy crisis centers and global warming. I was ignorant of the first two, and it appeared her thesis was the reason why.
A saying in the news business suggests if it isn’t reported in the news, it didn’t really happen. That is especially true today as mainstream media mergers have eliminated diversity of ownership and voices in even the largest U.S. cities. The Internet is the news frontier, a place where independents can have a voice. But, good and bad, Internet sources don’t have the supposed credibility and history of mainstream media outlets.
So if the mainstream media ignore a story, it doesn’t really exist. I don’t know whether that rises to the level of being unethical, but it certainly isn’t the best use of the freedom guaranteed the news media by the First Amendment.
If media consumers don’t demand issues-oriented news coverage, they won’t get it and they will continue to leave mainstream media in droves.
Nerissa Young is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communications at Shepherd University and a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.