Saturday, October 08, 2005

Journalism's Code of Deception

He said, he said
The latest version of journalism's code of ethics lets scribes off the hook when it comes to reporting the truth. According to the most widely used codes (from ASNE and APME), journalist need only present both sides of an issue -- even when those cited are lying -- to fulfill their role.

The code wasn't always written this way. Earlier versions state that, “every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias, and in context." Journalists and their editors dropped this wording from recent redrafts to make the code “more operational," explained David Hawpe, APME's ethics committee chairman.

Therefore, when President Bush declared on October 6 that the US had foiled "at least ten serious al Qaeda terrorist plots since September the 11th, including three al Qaeda plots to attack inside the United States," most journalists reported this on face value. A few -- including the LA Times -- went the extra yard to press the White House for examples, which revealed the President's speech to be more shrill rhetoric than reality. The Times' effort to get at the truth was the exception.

Martin Lobel, decries the press' failure to examine the inequalities embedded in our national tax system. Statistics show that the economy is growing but most of the benefit has gone to the top 1/10th of 1 percent of the population, which has been able to shift a significant portion of its tax burden to the middle class. Writes Lobel:

The key to an effective democracy is an effective press. One place an effective press is sorely needed is in coverage of the economy, a vital underpinning for democracy. But here the press, by and large, is failing. It too often reduces stories to “he said, she said,” with little real analysis. . . . The press should stop acting like trained seals and start asking serious questions about the abuses of our economy.

Reviving the earlier standard for discerning the truth is more important now than ever before. Political spin and deception have gone into hyper-drive. This as a dangerous byproduct of the accelerated 24-7 news cycle. The machinations that transform un-sourced reports into legitimate subject matter for mainstream consumption exist within every news organization; a prominent smear that emerges from the fringes of the Internet can eventually make its way up the media food chain onto front pages.

A lie can now now get into the media bloodstream, turn virulent and travel fast, Ken Auletta of the New Yorker once told me. "Speed is always the enemy of context and thought and fact-checking."

Lying, as a result, has become the new rule of political campaigns -- not the exception. Media's inability to discern the truth for their audience undermines our democratic system at its core.

Without a concerted effort to rewrite their code and put it into vigorous practice, journalists will play a leading role in a future of misinformed voters and the leaders who lie to them.

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