Archive for March, 2010

When the Public Gets Ethics and Journalists Don’t

So, this morning walking into the office I join paths with a colleague who asks me how I like being SPJ’s president and what I’ve been doing lately. She caught me at a bad time, or maybe a good one because I then had to explain to her how I spend most of my Tuesday afternoon arguing with network people over their practice of paying licensing rights to sources for their exclusive stories. In short, buying news.

SPJ issued a press release Tuesday via its ethics committee condemning ABC news for paying $200,000 to the family and attorney of Casey Anthony, the woman accused of killing her daughter, Caylee. ABC News said it paid this astronomical amount for videos and family photos it used in its coverage of the story. Insiders told me it’s a lot of pay for photos and videos and that amount was intended to secure an exclusive interview. But, that interview never happened and ABC denies they were ever trying to buy a sit-down with the alleged killer. Again, off-the-record comments to me this week suggest that’s not true. In a world where the truth seems to take a back seat to integrity, it’s difficult to say.

But, back to my colleague. Walking into the building and riding up in the elevator I explain all of this to her as best I can in the short time. She looks at me in astonishment. Without prompting she says something very profound. At this very moment I wish every network news director could see her expression and hear her as she says “Oh, Kevin, doesn’t paying for news seriously call into question the very heart of the truth?” Bingo.

She goes on, “I mean how do you measure truth when price is attached? Is there more truth as the price goes higher? This seems very disturbing to me.”

And there you have it. The very point SPJ has been trying to make. Conveyed by someone who knows nothing of journalism but is a consumer of news, she finds this problematic.

When ABC pays licensing rights (or whatever legal term or contorted euphemism they want to attach to it) for an interview, when NBC provides free plane rides to a father and his son from South America to Florida and just happens to land that all-exclusive interview in the process, it taints the very heart of what journalists do. Is a source expected to tell one version of the truth for $5,000 and another if the price is $10,000? I want to know. Certainly my colleague raises the issue.

And here’s the real question network executives have to answer: How long do you think it will take to erode your credibility with the American public if news stories came with tags like “ABC paid $20,000 for this interview”? Or “NBC wants you to know that we provided plane trips, hotel accommodations and other costs to our source on this story?” Not long. Which might explain why ABC sat on its Anthony payout for about two years until it was revealed in a court hearing last week.

I teach my journalism students the very first week that they have a duty to: 1. The Truth and  2. Fairness. Someone once told me after reading a city council story of mine that he thought I got it all right and I did a fair job of presenting all sides in a rather contentious debate the evening before. I tell my students that should be the ultimate compliment for a journalist. You got it truthful and you were fair. Remember that and everything else will fall into place. That night I never had to reach into my pocket and produce $20 bills to get it right or make it fair.

So, when I see money being passed around for interviews or gifts offered I wonder if truth and fairness are being considered or is it simply a network mentality that the only stories worth telling have to come with a price tag.

And lastly, I wonder what the more than 300 ABC employees who might lose their jobs if enough retirements don’t occur must be thinking this week knowing that they can’t keep legitimate journalists on payroll but have $200,000 to toss at a source interview.

That detail, thankfully, I spared my colleague.

Talking About Our Future — A Modest Proposal

A couple of weeks ago I had to privilege of going back to my alma mater, West Virginia University, to address a crowd of about 60 students and faculty members who wanted to know my thoughts on the future of our profession.

It was a special moment to walk back on campus and into the journalism school building where 30 years earlier I traversed the halls as an innocent and eager journalism student, anxious to make my mark on the world.
Now, as the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, my views seem to take on added value. I’m continually asked about the future of journalism. What struck me this particular evening was that the future question came both from a student and my former reporting professor who’s been retired 15 years – journalists at opposite ends of the career spectrum, both nevertheless concerned.

What I said that evening came from a culmination of views and research I’ve been subjected to over the last six months as the leader of the largest journalism organization in the United States.
Depending on who you ask, you received different views. Those who have a vested interest in digital media want to see print go away. Those working in print make a case for their product and label Internet journalism a wasteland for truth.

Sometimes attending these conferences is a bit like sitting in an echo chamber – it’s the same voices saying the same things over and over. My problem with talking about our future is we aren’t reaching out and pulling in enough voices. I’ve been to Yale and Washington, D.C. twice and plan another trip to a Future of Journalism conference in April. No surprise the panels consists of similar names.
If these talking heads are so strident in their views as to where our profession is heading, why haven’t they come up with a solution to save our dying news products? To be sure, everyone is producing ideas but no one seems to be pushing hard to get them into place.

What I do know is this, journalism students like the ones that evening at WVU need to expand their skill sets. That’s been proven. If you come out of college limited in your abilities to write for the Internet, shoot and edit video or navigate the landscape of social media, you are at a clear disadvantage.

When I started in the newsroom 31 years ago no one had to tell me how important I’d be if I could do a number of tasks. I thought being versatile was the way to success and it allowed me to move from being a sportswriter to a police reporter to a business writer in three years. I showed off my photography skills and my ability to hand desk duties in that time as well. The more things change the more they stay the same.
It makes no sense for someone my age to think that I can ride out this technological storm that is digital media. I’d be doing a disservice to my students and my profession by hiding and pretending it will go away. As the president of SPJ it equally makes no sense to attend these meetings and not believe that great change is before us. How we prepare for and embrace this will be our defining moment.

The future has many faces. Print, digital, social, interactive. What we have to understand is how each contributes to our information society and why. Instead of advocating one over another and calling that the path of the future it’s time to understand, value and appreciate each medium and how that fits into the overall mass communication scheme. That’s not like anything I’ve been hearing of late. Maybe that’s why conferences keep being held and nothing seems to be getting done.


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