Toward a Compassionate Press in the New Millennium
The blurring of the line between journalism and entertainment, the commercial pressures on media organizations to aim always for the highest readership or viewer ship possible, the “tabloidization” of formerly “serious” journalist, the emergence of journalism stars paid astronomically high salaries at least in television, the apparently reduced interest of the general public in “serious” news; all these have contributed to the transformation of journalism at least in much of the Western world into a profession where self-advancement and self-promotion seem at times to eclipse the traditional functions of the profession itself.
Speaking at a major East Coast theological seminary in the U.S.A., I asked my audience of some 300 or so people how many of them had not heard of the following three names in the previous two years, Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena Bobbitt, and Jon Benet Ramsey. Only eight of the 300 raised their hands to acknowledge ignorance of these people, and four of these were students from outside the U.S.
Then I asked how many of the audience had not heard of Jiang Zemin, Aleksandr Lebed, and Nestor Cepra. (Jiang is the president of China, Lebed is one of Russia’s most popular political figures, and Nestor Cepra was the leader of the three-month guerilla takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru). About half the entire audience had never heard of these people. My point about tabloidization was not disputed during the question time.
One consequence of this development is a broad public view of the profession of journalism that may be at its lowest level in decades. As James Fallows pointed out in his book, WHY AMERICANS HATE THE MEDIA, the view of journalists depicted in feature films and television shows for the past two decades has been almost uniformly derogatory. Journalists in movies since the 1980′s, he said, have “been portrayed, on average, as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians or business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world.” Examples Fallows quotes are the reporter Sally Field in “Absence of Malice” (1981) or the airhead newscaster played by William Hurt in “Broadcast News” (1987).
A Times-Mirror poll of attitudes towards journalism and other topics in 1995 had these findings: For example, 79% of respondents thought the media was no more ethical than the politicians on whom they reported, 74% thought the media themselves drove the controversies they reported. Paradoxically, despite evidence that the public buys tabloid newspapers in the U.S. that expose the personal scandals of the rich and famous, 65% of the people polled thought that the alleged character problems of President Clinton had been overdone by the media.
Much of the decline in respect must derive from a widespread sentiment that journalists have gradually distanced themselves from the standards of integrity that were once broadly practiced by the profession.
JOURNALISM WITHOUT A SOCIAL FUNCTION
One of the most interesting series of listings on the Internet is the neat compilation of codes of journalistic ethics assembled by the journalistic professional associations in various countries over the years. In many ways, the codes as much as anything reflect the shifting moral priorities of the societies themselves as much as any permanent verities about the journalistic profession.