Can we avoid the journalismisms?
A term has been recently popularized to describe supposedly sound principles of professional journalism being perverted to produce what is opposed to the actual practice of the same. It is "journalismism". Journalismism, promoted at Gawker, is when the media exhibits excesses and eventually, failures. It is not strictly criticism based on ethics but rather the often nonsensical results of reporters and editors who overextend themselves to simply sensationalize or produce biased stories rather than following the basic rules of good journalism.
Viewers, readers and listeners are looking for the bottom line. They understand that there is a trade off between timeliness and certainty. This is the tricky part for the media: Should they wait for near-100 percent assurance that their reporting is perfect? Or should they risk having to say "never mind"?
Credibility is in the eyes of the consumer. Some consumers will always criticize news that they do not like even when it is accurate. Beside, why should the media be held to a standard of perfection when candidates, pundits and party spokespersons are not? The media are run by humans and we humans make mistakes. Most consumers of news, unfortunately, will probably say: "Give me what you have as you have it." The fact is that a competitive media environment prefers immediacy over accuracy.
What is the result?
Take the case of the shooting at the Connecticut elementary school. Following the official naming of the alleged shooter, CNN, followed by additional mainstream outlets and then others, on the Internet, report it. Sites such as Gawker, Mediaite, and BuzzFeed found a Facebook account photograph of a man matching the name, approximate age, town of birth and town of residence and uploaded those as being the man named by police as the shooter.
It turned out a few hours later that that was a misidentification.
Of course, this was a simple, but horrible mistake. Who is responsible? The reporter or the researcher? But there are other parallel instances in which the media gets away from being guilty of ethics infractions by claiming, ‘We didn’t make a mistake. We reported on a mistake made by others’.
So, why is the media not more cautious to get it right?
News has become such a commodity of value that it has lost its primary character: of being the truth. It is now entertainment and as such, provides income for the owner of the stations or site or newspaper. Reporters now are in a hurry and under pressure. They are in a frenzy to get out the information first, to tweet it first, and to post it first. The structure rather than the content is what’s important.
In her December 22 column at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s Public Editor, was also upset that her paper wasn’t good enough in its coverage of late. She asked if mistakes are “inevitable in the hypercompetitive age of social media?” Why did high standards and journalistic rigor disappear, even under pressure? Her solution was to reconfirm the requirements of named sources, verification and transparency. If only personal responsibility had been included.
Media people need to regain credibility with their consumers, not with their bosses, the editors as well as the owners. Self-restraint should return to its honored place of preferred behavior. It would assist the public, serve democracy, justify a free untampered with press and simply be a paradigm of civic responsibility. In the end, the media provides us with the ability to understand which institutions and persons and policies are the more credible - and which of them are not. To fulfill that task, the media cannot afford, and the public should not permit the media, to lose this quality of truthfulness, reliability, exactitude and credibility.
The media, like all other human endeavors, is not immune from exaggerating, misconstruing and making silly errors.
But at the minimum, it certainly should not be biased.