Friday, December 3, 2010

Truth Versus Sensationalism: Revised Final Edition

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of Journalism is: “Writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” Loosely translated, it means writing the truth without unfair bias and personal conceptualization. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind, that there is a difference between journalism and tabloid journalism.

The idea of journalism is rooted deeply into the history of mankind. From the earliest cave drawings of pre-historic man, to the journalistic media of today’s modern society, it has evolved into a means by which news can be transmitted to every corner of the earth simultaneously, keeping the general public informed of everything from A to Z. Along with its evolution, a journalistic Code of Ethics incorporating standards, principles and canons were designed as guides to assist professional journalists in the truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity and fairness of their reporting, and to help with difficulties such as conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas. The Preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists in America states;

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.

Within the four categories of the SPJ Code of Ethics, several guidelines are worthy of special note;

Seek Truth and Report It

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Act Independently

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

Be Accountable

Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct. Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

For a full overview of the SPJ Code of Ethics: http://www.spj.org/

As important as these guidelines are, they are just that, guidelines, and were not intended as a set of rules. They are also not legally binding under The First Amendment where it prohibits the making of any law that among other things, impedes, infringes or interferes with the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Even so, the Code of Ethics is widely used by thousands of journalists, editors, writers and newsrooms as a platform to gauge their ethical culpability in reporting the news. But there are also thousands of journalists who seem to write by their own set of rules and guidelines, and appear to have taken “freedom of the press” out of context in the pursuit of headlines. Enter Sensationalistic Tabloid Journalism.

In brief, the definition of Tabloid Journalism is; “A publication of small format giving the news in small form usually with illustrated, often sensational lurid material. It tends to emphasize or exaggerate events and stories such as disasters and catastrophes, and repeat scandal and innuendos about the deeply personal lives of celebrities, sports stars and politicians etc.” A perfect example in this age is the over-concentration by tabloid media on reporting every aspect of Michael Jackson’s life, particularly, coverage of his 2005 trial. Under the guise of freedom of the press, the media seemed to feel they had the right to blatantly distort, twist, manipulate, misinterpret and misrepresent the truth in the pursuit of headlines. It still continues now, after his death.

The lack of truthful and fair reporting, and ethical and honest behavior apparent during media coverage of Michael Jackson’s 2005 trial, was perfectly addressed by Charles Thomson in his Huffington Post article, One of the Most Shameful Episodes In Journalistic History. During this trial, we see how the media manipulated the truth.

Looking back on the Michael Jackson trial, I see a media out of control. The sheer amount of propaganda, bias, distortion and misinformation is almost beyond comprehension. Reading the court transcripts and comparing them to the newspaper cuttings, the trial that was relayed to us didn't even resemble the trial that was going on inside the courtroom. The transcripts show an endless parade of seedy prosecution witnesses perjuring themselves on an almost hourly basis and crumbling under cross examination. The newspaper cuttings and the TV news clips detail day after day of heinous accusations and lurid innuendo.

When one reads the coverage during this time, it becomes obvious that the SPJ guidelines were largely ignored and proves the absence of any moral standards on the part of the media. Headlines screamed, Sicko! New York Daily News. Jacko: Now Get Out Of This One New York Post. He’s Bad, He’s Dangerous, He’s History, If he weren’t a pop idol with piles of cash to hide behind, he would have been picked up years ago. The Sun, in a deliberate and shameful attempt to gain readership. The absence of pertinent and truthful facts by the press sealed Michael’s fate in the eyes of the public, long before a “not guilty” verdict had been handed down.

Did the media take into consideration what effect their relentless attacks would have on the public’s view of Michael’s character, and most importantly, what toll it would take on his spirit? Did they feel remorse or shame; admit deceit? Absolutely not! In his article, Charles Thomson includes comments made by key media figures.

So what happened when Jackson was acquitted on all counts? Red faces? Second thoughts? A little soul-searching, perhaps? Maybe one expression of regret for the rush to judgment? Naaawww. The reaction, instead, was rage liberally laced with contempt and the odd puzzled expression. Its targets were the jurors… Hell hath no fury like a cable anchor held up for scorn. Media analyst, Tim Rutton.

Appearing on Court TV, Nancy Grace said. I’m having a crow sandwich right now. It doesn’t taste very good. But you know what? I’m also not surprised. I thought that celebrity is such a big factor. When you think you know somebody, when you have watched their concerts, listened to their records, read the lyrics, believed they were coming from somebody’s heart… Jackson is very charismatic, although he never took the stand. That has an effect on this jury.

I’m not gonna throw a stone at the mom, although I think she was the weak link in the state’s case, but the reality is I’m not surprised. I thought that the jury would vote in favor of the similar transaction witnesses. Apparently the defense overwhelmed them with the cross-examining of the mother. I think it boils down to that, plain and simple. She later added that Michael had been found not guilty “by reason of celebrity.”

Wendy Murphy on Fox News added, I really think it’s the celebrity factor, not the evidence. I don’t think the jurors even understand how influenced they were by who Michael Jackson is… They basically put targets on the backs of all, especially highly vulnerable kids that will now come into Michael Jackson’s life.
Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America was another who adhered to the idea that Michael had been acquitted due to his celebrity status. Are you sure?” Are you sure that this gigantically renowned guy walking into the room had no influence at all?

Diane Dimond in her last New York Post article wrote, He walked out of court a free man, not guilty on all counts. But Michael Jackson is so much more than free. He now has carte blanche to live his life any way he wants, with whomever he wants, because who would ever try to prosecute Michael Jackson now?
The story was over. There were no apologies and no retractions. There was no scrutiny - no inquiries or investigations. Nobody was held to account for what was done to Michael Jackson. The media was content to let people go on believing their heavily skewed and borderline fictitious account of the trial. That was that. Charles Thomson.

Not all journalists are guilty of the practices used during the coverage of Michael’s trial, but in this case it appears that the fine line drawn between journalism and tabloid journalism became indistinct; finally merging and giving birth to medialoid, where the mainstream media becoming infected by tabloid journalism, launched a frenzied propaganda attack on a man who, as Charles Thomson states, “never felt truly vindicated.”

So at whose feet do we lay blame for the blatant disregard of truth? Is it the individual reporter who devoured the facts, and then spat them back out as innuendos and allegations? Is it the media industry itself, which appears to have forgotten the meaning of journalism and great role models, such as Howard Bloom and Walter Cronkite? Or is it the public’s insatiable need for gossip and scandal that finds journalists vying for the juiciest story at the expense of the victim’s well-being, and right to privacy, injuring and in some cases destroying a person’s career, marriage, reputation and spirit.?

Without adhering to any set of moral standards, tabloid journalism has been sometimes called “the lying game,” where the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the facts sells coverage on a much larger scale than the truth. In essence, it could also be construed a “money-making game.” But the distinct ethical difference between journalism and tabloid journalism and the ethical or unethical practices they use, at the end of the day comes down to one person, the person in charge. Whether it is a newspaper or magazine editor, a television producer or book publisher, an author or blogger, all have the power to approve what will be aired or printed. With that comes a certain amount of responsibility that is often ignored in the quest for a mass audience.

On whatever scale a journalist or amateur writes in a public arena, we are all held accountable for the factual content of the material we present. At the same time, the public bears the responsibility for correctly interpreting the validity of the written word. This can be difficult at times given the over saturation of conflicting stories that are printed. There will always be those who believe everything they read, but in looking at the sources from where the information is coming from, keeping an open-mind and not being too quick to judge, we can start to separate fact from fiction.

One final note; regardless of how true or untrue, essentially each story contains an ideal, bias or pre-conceived notion of the person writing it. We can never truly be impartial. Knowing this; understanding this, does not give anyone the right to judge another through the written word. What happened to Michael should never have been allowed, and it most certainly should never happen again. Not to anyone.



© Valmai Owens, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

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