“Slow news, no news” – an Ethical Analysis of Newsroom Journalists’ Responses to the International Crisis
including an analysis of contemporary challenges to media professionals’ integrity
Mollie Painter-Morland and Ghislain Deslandes are Professors at DePaul University, Chicago, and ESCP Europe, Paris, respectively. Mollie is Acting Director of De Paul’s Institute for Business and Professional Ethics and also drops back to South Africa to teach on the MPhil Workplace Ethics Program at the University of Pretoria. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Business and Professional Ethics Journal and co-editor of Springer’s Issues in Business Ethics Series as well as author and co-author of a number of books including Ethics in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.
Ghislain is Director of the Specialized Masters programme in Media Management at ESCP and his teaching focuses on media management and business ethics. He is author of Le Management des médias (Editions La Découverte) and an active member of a variety of media management, journalistic and philosophical associations.
Their interest in the media is such that they had to fly from Dublin to a media conference in Moscow yet managed to attend the Irish dancing and music session the night before the rest of the conference! Their globetrotting was appropriate as they were describing in Dublin the outcome of some of their research involving focus groups of journalists in the USA, South Africa and France.
The essence of their talk was that over the last decade the media industry has undergone radical change which precipitated a fundamental rethinking of media professionals’ functioning in society and a challenge to their professional integrity. They contended that a mere reiteration of the ethical duties or principles that should guide professionals would not suffice.
They said one of the most important changes is the speed with which significant events are interpreted, reported and consumed. The media has undergone a global phenomenon of acceleration. As one South African commenter noted, “the consumer need for news really, really, hangs on speed. The guy out there with the best package, the best edited, quickest, fastest…” The editor in chief of an online French news broadcast adds: “you have much stronger pressure on every kind of media, regarding speed, regarding how fast they are able to deliver.”
The phenomenon of “news all the time” poses challenges how we can make sense of the contemporary world, subject to the accelerated flow of information, by using practices which themselves were not subject to the same conditions? As journalists have noted: “nobody teaches you to be fast and good at the same time” in a professional environment which may require “doing first, thinking later”.
For some, this is a positive and exciting development (“It will not stop increasing, it’s actually taking off. The shape of the curve is going faster, deeper and to other places. I think this is very exciting and we are very lucky to see this and to experience this”), while for others, the distance between events and a critical reflection on them has been markedly reduced. As one of the participants in their research interviewed in France notes, “You have 10 days to do 80 minutes of coverage. It’s impossible! But you have to do it anyway. I don’t know if you can say anything. Is there anybody who can just control it? I’m unfortunately not doing that because I have to work….
On the one hand, there are the advantages of widespread acceleration, such as the role that the immediacy of the media may have played in the democratic revolutions in the Middle East. And on the other, the disadvantages: in a world where technological innovation is a value in itself without necessarily being made to serve any informational content, the risk becomes one of “doing first and thinking later.”
This “speed of execution” may also influence the profession of journalism itself, undermining and transforming it, sometimes leaving it unarmed. As pointed out by a journalist who moderates a business journal on French television: “Nobody teaches us how to be fast and good at the same time. Everyone teaches you how to be a good journalist … but with time!”
Traditional professional ethics insists on objectivity, transparency, fairness and honesty. But how is it possible to be objective, when one is directly impacted by the events one is reporting on?
How is it possible to practice transparency in an increasingly cutthroat competitive environment, where the value of journalism is often disputed?
Can fairness and honesty really be procured in an environment where speed and urgency characterize interactions and verifying all facts and perspectives becomes close to impossible?
What does it mean to maintain “integrity” in an environment where the journalist now plays a role as the “facilitator of conversation and social networking”? (Ward, p. 140).
Should we focus only on the classic standards and universal values of journalism (Steele, 2008)? Or should we instead see that ethical codes applied to newsrooms are actually unlikely to significantly influence how journalists do their job (Black and Bearney 1985; Reinardy, 2010)? Should we simply replace the myth of objectivity (a term which has disappeared from the ethical code of the U.S. Society of Professional Ethics) with the myth of transparency (which is for example the slogan of Wikileaks and its founder), as suggested by Hunter and Van Wassenhove (2009)? Has honesty rather than neutrality become the watchword, and an essential component of trustworthiness?
Yet Mollie and Ghislain contended that journalistic ethics is in part still built on the notion of objectivity. Some of the comments from journalists surveyed include:
- “Objectivity is all in the eye of the beholder” so is this a contradiction in terms or a new definition?
- “You know we don’t try to be objective, we don’t pretend to be objective. We know it’s nonsense there’s no such thing as objectivity.”
- “We have to be fair, yes, but objective, no. It’s a little inside joke objectivity. (Laughs).”
- “The more the show, the less ethics for me. (…) I mean truth is different from being nice, from being spectacular”
So in some instances the spectacle, the spectre, the spectacular focus on vision may dominate judgement, but numb other sensibilities.
These points of view highlight the effects of market-driven journalism, the necessity to bring the largest audience possible together around one program. According to an editor-in-chief of a newsradio program, the audience’s concern is also an ethical question: “Because the choice we have is what do we prefer?… I like this view that I have to reach as many people as possible because otherwise there are so many people who don’t know anything or don’t read anything. Many people are talking about illiteracy. Where is ethics here? Attractive is part of the job I think.”
Although their participants seemed to agree on this point—namely, that there was on the one hand a “high quality/serious journalism” that benefits from time, space, and an inclination for nuance and moderation (especially when it comes to finding valuable, credible witnesses), and an “immediacy journalism” on the other hand—the conclusions they draw from this are quite diverse.
“Immediacy journalism” has to be taken seriously, despite its negative connotation: “I think there is a substantive work, a work of depth that has to be conducted on immediacy journalism. (…) In making this distinction between seriousness and immediacy, we prevent ourselves from thinking about what good immediacy journalism should be,” notes the general manager of a newsroom at a French television news network. For the participants, the danger lies less the emergence of a journalism focusing on hot news, which may seem logical to those whom Camus called “historians of the instant,” than it does in the appearance of semi-professional practices that would raise—and indeed already do raise—the question of journalistic legitimacy.
The metaphor of a “water spider” to illustrate the professional’s know-how in the age of immediacy—like the water spider, the professional has to choose the right wave, be attentive to the incessant movements, tower above the waves and ride the flows. The other metaphor was proposed by a South African journalist, who characterized journalists as “curators”: “You trust that just like you trust a best friend to recommend a restaurant. They curate the information that is out there. Yes, they go a lot of restaurants and they like a lot of the same things I do so, I’ll go with what she said. I think that’s our job.”
Mollie and Ghislain suggested this posed an identity crisis for journalists, challenging the characteristics of the journalistic profession?
They asked whether two forms of journalism needed to be distinguished: one serious news journalism and the other immediacy-journalism? The metaphor of an earthworm was usewd to refer to the profession splitting up into different parts that have a life of their own. They did suggest thought that such a distinction may actually undermine consideration about what good immediacy journalism should be.
One journalist even wonded whether journalists were even necessary anymore? With Google the value of information is determined in function not of its pertinence but of its publication. The more recent it is, the higher it appears in the search results. Here we have to distinguish two information markets: the first is a commodity market while the other remains a strong value-added business, without this differentiation being clearly established yet.
What we see in all this is both the necessity and even the urgency to confront questions posed by the phenomenon of speed in newsrooms, but also to address the collective vulnerability experienced by journalists in an evolving environment.
Mollie and Ghislain suggested that what seems to be lacking in newsrooms is basically a tool, a thermometer that allows professionals to measure the value of information and to determine the ideal moment to publish it in order to maximize this value. For one of the participants, since this tool doesn’t exist, you have to make do with the imagination.
Respondents seemed to agree on the fact that organisational and economic questions, especially about the loss of value of journalistic activities, rests on the imagination of the management, which has to propose solutions for getting out tof he crisis by mixing marketing, economic and editorial approaches without overbuilding the borders between these different domains of expertise.
They suggested that to the journalists who participated in their research, ethics within enterprises specialized in information will depend on the hierarchy of values between entertainment and the truthful establishment of the facts.
As promised by the title of their paper, they then turned their attention to the work of philosophers such as Bergson and Virilio who shed interesting light on the effect of speed and specific orientations to time on our self-conception and our perception and interpretation of events.
From Bergson’s perspective (in 1938), the most serious problem lies in the fragmentation of time into segments to which we assign objective, instrumental purposes. Once time has become segmented in this way, we lose our capacity for true perception.
Paul Virilio echoed this concern about the fragmentation of time in his discussion of the vivisection of events into multiple images that are circulated at great speed. He warned that if locomotive illusions are considered the truth of vision, it will lead to “spectacular disturbances” in our perspective.
From an ethical perspective, we may therefore have to rethink the terms within which “objectivity” is possible within the media industry.
Is all that is left a kind of Nietzschean perspectivism and an understanding of the limits of the various images and sound bites that are circulated?
The accelerated movement of images also has an impact on the self-conception of professionals.
Virilio (“The light of speed” p120 in: Negative Horizon, Continuum Press, 2008) points out that technology can provide professionals with multiple “shots” and other “recordings” from which to study themselves from multiple angles and perspectives, as if in an endless mirror.
The problem lies in the generalized dissection that is part of the accelerated circulation of these images. The result is the dromoscopic decomposition of vision, which Virilio describes as a kind of sacrifice. He predicts that this may yield an entirely different kind of ethic.
Within the professional environment, we need to consider what the series of optical illusions yield in terms of professional self-conceptions. Virilio argues that orators and actors alike fashion their style to the audio-visual technology, and these “rules of the game”, which when subjected to audiovisual pressure of broadcast technology.
Virilio’s ‘lens’ view implied WE change HOW we know our world changes. The ‘disqualification of distance’ undermined journalists capacity to act. They have no space to act and lose the mediating value of action and practice, which used to ground professions, while the immediacy of interaction gains in comparison.
The result to Virilio is “an oblivion industry” whereby codes take over from words and things and speed of calculation outstrips time of thought.
They concluded by discussing the implications for professional ethics, asking were journalists doomed to a “refusal of understanding” as Virilio suggested? There were some clear dangers, notably that the very basis of professional ethics as virtue built through practice may become defunct if action becomes impossible, and objectivity may also become defunct if the combination of reality and virtuality manufactures a relief where “anything goes”, as long as the dromocracy accepts it in terms of its technological calculations.
They suggested the critical questions for the maintenance of professional ethics include:
- How to steer clear of automatic democracy in technological environments? How to create spaces for dissent, precisely in and through, not despite, technological access and speed?
- How do relational, or participative checks and balances emerge as a new form of “objectivity”? Informing and negotiating public expectations, enhance critical scrutiny
- How do we find space for action, for practice, in a high-paced environment?
Not only did changes in technology change the playing field for journalists, but the increasing interconnectedness of economic, political and social developments also presents media professionals with new challenges. Whilst many other professionals are challenged by such societal and economic issues, they are generally given more time to contemplate their issues than their journalist counterparts in that most immediate of media environments – the newsroom.
Reuters: Principles of Trust or Propaganda?
Prof Henry Silverman is Chair of the Information Systems, Accounting, Finance and Real Estate Departments. in the Heller College of Business at Roosevelt University in Chicago, USA. He pioneered the use of Ethnographic Content Analysis (ECA) in financial studies and, combined with more traditional quantitative methods, researches and analyses corporate communications, disclosure materials and financial and legal documents.
It was not a surprise then when we heard he was going to discuss a well known communications organisation – Reuters, a leading provider of multimedia news and information services to newspapers, television and cable networks, radio stations and websites. The Reuters.com website draws an average of more than 30 million visitors per month.
Thomson Reuters (“Reuters”) was founded 160 years ago as a news & stock price service company. Reuters Group plc and Thomson Corporation combined to form Thomson Reuters in 2008, the world’s largest international news agency with 200 bureaus and 2,700 journalists, including over 70 in Israel & the Palestinian territories, the focus of his talk in Dublin.
Reuters maintains a corporate governance charter called the “Trust Principles”, created in agreement with the Newspaper Publishers Association and Reuters shareholders which proclaims
- “That the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Thomson Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved” and
- “That Thomson Reuters shall supply unbiased and reliable news services to newspapers, news agencies, broadcasters and other media subscribers…”
Henry also explained that the agency also publishes online the Reuters Handbook of Journalism, a 500+ page editorial handbook setting out guiding ethical principles for journalists which requires all professional activities to be “independent, free from bias and executed with the utmost integrity.” The 10 “absolutes of Reuters journalism” include
- Always hold accuracy sacrosanct
- Always strive for balance and freedom from bias
- Always guard against putting their opinion in a news story
- Never alter a still or moving image beyond the requirements of normal image enhancement
Notwithstanding its volume of standards, values and ethical guiding principles for its journalists, Reuters has been subject to accusations by some media watchdogs of systematic bias and the use of propaganda in its reporting on the Middle East conflict. Henry showed an example of a photograph before and after a knife was removed from a photograph of a well reported international incident prior to global distribution.
Henry explained that this research examined a sample of fifty news-oriented articles associated with the Middle East conflict published on the Reuters website across a three month study window. The questions for study included:
- With respect to Reuters reporting on the Middle East conflict, can failures to report events accurately, neutrally, or in compliance with ethical and corporate standards, such as the use of propaganda and logical fallacies and/or violations of the Reuters Handbook of Journalism, be detected?
- What techniques were employed and how prevalent were they?
- Do Reuters articles on the Middle East conflict influence a sample of readers to feel more sympathetic or favourable towards one or the other belligerent parties?
- Do Reuters articles on the Middle East conflict influence a sample of readers to feel more motivated to take supportive action on behalf of one or the other belligerent parties?
- What are the associations between specific reporting failures and reader responses?
- What can be inferred about the ideology or purpose of Reuters Middle East reporting from the data?
Henry then outlined the literature related to propaganda and fallacies:
- Control of attitudes via manipulation of symbols (Lasswell and Blumenstock, 1939)
- Conscious attempt to influence the beliefs of an individual or group, guided by a predetermined end and characterized by the systematic use of irrational and often unethical techniques of persuasion (Smith, 1989)
- Deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist (Jowett and O’Donnell, 1999)
- Nearly all biased messages in society are propagandistic (Ellul, 1965)
He then outlined a variety of propaganda devices including Appeal to Authority, Appeal to Pity, Appeal to Poverty, Apposition, Assertion/Allusion, Asymmetrical Definition, Atrocity Propaganda, Bandwagon and Card Stacking.
The methodology of the research included validating the results using triangulation with a combination of Ethnographic Content Analysis and primary survey data to identify and code reporting failures in the articles, notably propaganda, logical fallacies and violations of the Reuters Handbook.
Content analysis was also used to investigate communications messages by categorizing message content into classifications in order to measure certain variables (Rogers). Harold Lasswell developed and employed content analysis to study propaganda in World War I.
A random sample of 50 Reuters stories on the Middle East conflict were analysed using ECA and then read by 33 subjects who were tested for effects of propaganda on the audience (Jowett and O’Donnell) and attitude-measuring surveys (Likert, Rosenthal).
They tested for shifts in audience attitudes and support for the primary belligerent parties in the Middle East conflict following readings of the sample and test for associations between the reporting failures and audience attitudes/support. The subjects were surveyed before and after readings for 1) sympathy /favourable feelings toward one or the other belligerent parties in the ME conflict, and 2) motivation to take (nonspecific) supportive action on behalf of one or the other parties. Regressions were run to test for associations between reporting /ethical failures identified by ECA and subject attitudes
The results found over 1,100 occurrences of reporting failures identified across forty-one categories and following article readings a significant shift in audience attitudes and support was observed.
With both survey questions, subject attitudes were largely neutral before the readings. Following the readings there was a significant shift in viewpoint and support in favour of the Arabs/Palestinians.
The research also found significant associations between 1) the use of atrocity propaganda and audience favourability/sympathy toward the Arabs/Palestinians; 2) the use of the appeal to pity fallacy and audience favourability/sympathy toward the Arabs/Palestinians; and 3) the use of atrocity propaganda, appeal to pity and appeal to poverty fallacies, and audience motivation to take supportive action on behalf of the Arabs/Palestinians.
We infer from the evidence that Reuters engaged in systematically biased storytelling in favour of the Arabs/Palestinians and is able to influence audience affective behaviour and motivate direct action along the same trajectory.
When compared with the standards and ethical commitments proclaimed by Reuters Trust Principles and Handbook of Journalism, the findings suggest a very different set of objectives and reveal a radically different journalistic approach and product.
The study provided a window into the inner ideological and editorial workings of Reuters but henry maintained that further research was needed, including direct interviews with Reuters journalists to delineate individual and institutional objectives, motivations and values. This resoected
Henry said though that the overall conclusion had to be that the research reflected a fundamental failure to uphold the Reuters corporate governance charter and ethical guiding principles. Notably “preserving its independence, integrity and freedom from bias in the gathering and dissemination of information and news”.
The presentation was engaging and ultimately compelling. Like so many of the other talks on a wide array of topics, one notable common denominator was seen to arise yet again as Henry’s presentation progressed – not only the key role of integrity and ‘doing the right thing’ in the circumstances, but the positive and beneficial impact on continuing trust by doing so.
In stark contrast, in so many instances when integrity has been found wanting, the frequency of the outcome being a negative and harmful impact on trust, and the difficulty of regaining that elusive quality once damaged, should have made the parties involved more critical of their own behaviour in advance as they weighed up their options and considered the risks. Perhaps as Blanchard & Peale asserted there is no right way to do a wrong thing? Would you do business with someone you no longer trusted?
Which makes the choice of title for Reuters corporate governance charter and ethical guidelines all the more prescient. Perhaps given its 500+ pages, all their staff need to do as they face their key deliberations is consider its name – Reuters Trust Principles.