Friday, May 21, 2004

Upping the ethics ante

Vaughn Ververs at NationalJournal.com has just upped the stakes in the journalism ethics game.

To sum: Give 'em what they want because they can go elsewhere to get it -- you're no longer the gatekeepers. But while you are distributing the latest rumor or gruesome video, do it with some journalistic taste by wrapping it with "context."
Ververs throws down the gantlet in regard to the Nick Berg beheading video -- why didn't news organizations make it available, he asks? And journalists should have distributed the Paris Hilton video and addressed the John Kerry affair rumor, too.

What's out there is out there, he says, and if the "Big J" journalists insist on being gatekeepers, then people will go elsewhere "and they may never come back."

In his own words:
Instead of acting as gatekeepers, the traditional press should become the ratifiers of news. Take on those rumors and prove them to be without merit. Show those pictures and give the consumer the kind of context that isn't so prevalent on the Internet. Get out in front and lead the way on some of these stories -- and before long, the buzz will be that what's energizing the Internet is old news.

In Nirvana, that might be true. But I'm not convinced that context can always be provided. What "context" was there for the Paris Hilton video? What context was missed by saying Berg had been beheaded and showing just enough of the video to let me see the obvious viciousness of his killers and then explaining to me what had happened and what the ramifications were?

The problem is exactly what Ververs says -- journalists already are "ratifiers" simply by what they choose to show and not show. So if we show Berg's beheading, we subtly start ratifying it as normative, no matter what we say or do otherwise. In some informal conversations with people who had watched both the Danny Pearl and the Nick Berg videos, they noted the Berg video was slightly less shocking simply because of what they had seen before. Do it enough, and ...

Ververs misses the point: I do my journalism my way; you do yours your way. I hew to certain standards that you might not. If the public likes my standards better, they come to me (and that well might be a daypart shifting thing -- go to me at breakfast because you know I'll give you the context but not the gruesome stuff; go to the other person at night or in the office when you want a touch of the gory). Some suits call it "branding." Ververs calls it "gatekeeping." I call it journalism.

And no, my journalism is not necessarily the "Big J" journalism Ververs suggests. Big J, little j, anyone actually professing to practice journalism must make judgments grounded in one's values, ethics, knowledge and view of the world. Without values, we are nothing but shells, and the public is quick to smoke out valueless frauds. To fail to do our craft otherwise is "Big P" -- pandering.

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