Several years ago on a trip to Washington, DC, my wife and I visited the National Press Club for lunch and a tour of the Club. Among the many things that impressed me there was a bronze plaque on a wall, The Journalists Creed, which the Press Club has had on display since 1958.
The Creed is the product of Walter Williams, not the excellent columnist of today, but an older gentleman who is credited with starting the world’s first school of journalism in 1908 at the University of Missouri. In 1914 Williams created the Creed, as “a declaration and personal affirmation of the principles, values and standards of journalists throughout the world,” according to the Fourth Estate organization. It regards journalism as an ethical public trust that requires accuracy and fairness.
Since Williams created the Creed, and even since the Press Club’s acknowledgement of it in ’58, huge changes in the way news is distributed have taken place. Now in addition to newspapers, periodicals, radio and television we have the Internet and social media.
These days absolutely anyone can appear to be a legitimate news source on the Internet. Many or most of these sources may have good intentions, but lack the background or discipline to do it correctly. They are unaware of, or ignore the Creed.
These days even some who know the importance of the ethics with which news journalism should be practiced don’t always stick to the straight and narrow. Being first is often more important than being correct. “Click bait,” sensational headlines designed to increase the number of visitors to Web sites, are common.
In addition to new media technologies are also new media genres, such as the speculative media: Trying to be first, a hint of something often spurs frantic action to get out there before anyone else through online or on-air media. For example, when President Donald Trump reached back for Malania’s hand while exiting a plane on their recent trip abroad, and she sort of flipped her hand away, the media reported that there might be trouble in their marriage.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who is catholic, was not among those who met the Pope on the trip, so the media reported that his being excluded might signal that Spicer was on his way out as spokesman.
Neither of these were true.
The assumption media: When Trump mentioned being “wiretapped,” it was “assumed” that he meant wiretapping and only wiretapping, not the newer, more modern methods of surveillance, apparently widely used in the Obama administration.
The agenda media: We saw very little reporting on the positive aspects of Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican and NATO, but there was plenty on the “troubles” in Trump’s administration.
And then there’s Kathy Griffin, the self-described “D-list comedian,” who worked very hard to create a disgusting, low-class image of her holding a bloody likeness of the decapitated head of the President of the United States ISIS-like, by its hair.
Criticized for this repulsive display of what today passes for humor by nearly everyone, she finally issued an apology, except not apologizing to her target, Trump and his family. Shortly thereafter, the firestorm of anger and disgust she stirred up created for her a moment of brilliant insight: The negative reaction to her gross attempt at humor, and her resulting misery is actually Trump’s fault.
And guess which one gets too much coverage? Poor deranged Kathy’s campaign about her hurt feelings at the hands of her imaginarily beheaded enemy.
Wesley Pruden, Editor Emeritus of The Washington Times, is a man trained in and who worked in journalism when standards were more broadly expected of practitioners. He characterized a Bloomberg News reporter’s G7 coverage like this: “Just what a ‘bromance’ is [between France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau], beyond the not-so-clever wordplay, sounds like too much information, something you ought not to want to know about. It’s no doubt overheated reporting by a reporter who never had an editor to teach him the rewards of restraint.
“But romance was clearly in the air, not between the leaders of France and Canada, but by reporters nurtured not on the rough edges of politics and discipline of newspapers, but by too much time spent watching soap operas.”
Another old pro, Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal, said this about today’s practice of the profession: “When journalists drop objectivity to become part of the shout-fest, and when grass-roots activists move beyond making voices heard to voicing threats against those with whom they disagree, they are adding to the problem.”
These examples of journalistic malpractice and comments about news coverage from two old timers show how far news reporting has strayed early in the 21st century.
Combined with a general public largely unconcerned with studying current events America has a true problem. So many consumers of news get their “news” from their friends on social media, and accept as true those communications that fit their preconceptions. They just don’t look beneath the surface for fact.
With all these factors, the public is largely under-informed, or misinformed, a circumstance both dangerous and foolish.