The short answer: ethics.
It seems like everywhere I turn lately, so-called journalists in the mainstream media (MSM) are sacrificing their professional integrity for the sake of gaining (or just keeping) their readership in the age of electronic media.
I don’t really know, but I’m writing this article, mostly to rant, but party to hypothesize about why mainstream media is so screwed up.
Before we can understand how ethics applies in professional journalism, first we must define the term. Ethics is defined as the rules recognized to be a code of conduct to a particular set of actions. We we deem as right or wrong has a lot to do with our religious and ethnic backgrounds. (That being said, it is important to note that this article should not be construed as a commentary on any particular religion or ethnicity.)
Ethics is also what’s missing from mainstream media in the 21st century. Granted, I have not had education in journalism, but does anyone really need that to be a true journalist? No. What makes a good writer is unwavering ethics, integrity and a sense of purpose without ego. You also have to be able to relate the news of the day in a way that will resonate with the public without distorting the facts.
There is a code of conduct published by the Society of Professional Journalists to which media staff should adhere. However, even SPJ states that the code of conduct by nature is not legally enforceable under the First Amendment and it is the duty of those who call themselves professional journalists to abide by this code. Some journalists, such as Kara Swisher, have taken the liberty of publishing their own set of ethical guidelines to which they hold themselves accountable. I have also published my ethical code for my readers.
All this is pure rhetoric, of course. It’s one thing to ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to ethics and integrity, but what happens when it’s time to ‘walk the walk’? Some hold true to their word and some falter. Here are my examples:
- Kara Swisher: Way back in 1997, when the Internet was just starting to get hot and technology was on it’s way to becoming mainstream in our homes, Ms. Swisher was starting to cover digital news for the San Francisco bureau of the Wall Street Journal with her column called BoomTown. With a classic education in journalism – namely as a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism – she continues to evangelize technology to millions of readers every day with her column on All Things Digital. She makes my top spot due to her meeting all the qualities I've previously mentioned in this article.
- Leo Laporte: Leo is a long-time technology journalist who is the owner of TWiT and it’s family of netcasts. For over 30 years, Leo has been instrumental in helping anyone who wanted to learn about technology to know more (including yours truly). Getting his start early with ZDTV and later with TechTV, Leo is a consummate professional, although some accuse him of being too much of an Apple fanboy. He strikes a perfect balance between the eons-old PC vs. Mac battle and manages to branch into other genres of technology from the open source movement to the legalities of technology.
Of course I could go on forever about the talented journalists in our field of work, but I would be remiss of I didn’t touch on those that choose to pervert our genre for their own gain.
- David Pogue: In 2009, Pogue – technology columnist for the New York Times – after coming under fire from various industry players, stated that he is “not a journalist” and has never been to journalism school and therefore shouldn’t be held to the same standards as his industry peers.. However, his main source of employment, by nature, makes him a journalist. As I have previously pointed out, education in the field of journalism does not a requirement make. Pogue only backtracked to excuse conflicts of interest, such as his Missing Manual books and failing to give full disclosure when doing product reviews.
- Mike Arrington: As the fearful leader of TechCrunch, Arrington is known by many as an Internet troll and may be best known in geek communities for calling out Leo Laporte on the June 6, 2009 episode of The Gillmor Gang show for being predisposed to writing a biased review because Laporte received a Palm Pre review unit at no cost. This was a complete lack of integrity on Arrington’s part because the accusation was completely unfounded. While it should be noted that Arrington is not technically a journalist, TechCrunch is a tech-based news blog and I feel he should be held to the same standards as any other journalist, or the lines between tech blogger and tech journalist would be forever blurred in the public’s eyes. He has also, in the past, used his influential site to invoke politics where it does not belong.
All of this being said, a true journalist avoids conflicts of interest, regardless of the muse. He must place himself under public scrutiny and surpass the trial by fire. He must refrain from bending the facts to arrive at a certain view point – to remain unbiased in his reporting. He must also hold his peers accountable for their actions and to the code of conduct for professional journalists. For a complete outline of the standards, I suggest you read the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Conduct.
It is a disgraceful fact that there are those that blur the lines. If morally-bound tech journalists (or any journalist, for that matter) wish to preserve their profession for years to come, and to have the public trust their word, they will call out the wolves hiding in sheep’s clothing and expose them for the frauds they are.
Anything less is placation and will ultimately lead to the downfall of technology reporting.
Note: I originally started this article to write about my disgust with mainstream media in general, however, the publication of the Valleywag article on David Pogue’s inappropriate behavior lead me to tailor this article to my specific industry.