A well-informed electorate is a crucial part of a successful democracy. Part of the first amendment gives journalists the rights they need to provide citizens with the information they need to vote responsibly.
However, there are still obstacles to journalists as they work to inform. The constitution doesn’t protect everything.
For example, a big problem these days is how business interests are finding their way into the news. At some point, every journalist wants to be a purist who only covers truly newsworthy topics and does it as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t realistic.
Massive media conglomerates now own the majority of major news outlets; these conglomerates are businesses first and journalistic enterprises later. They are looking to make money above all else. What does this cause? Certain topics may be avoided if the news would harm the financial interests of the conglomerate. It’s journalistic negligence, but it’s completely legal.
Another consequence of big business taking over journalism is the type of coverage that it promotes. Hear me out. The higher the ratings the programs receive, the more money the network can make from advertising. This puts an emphasis on catering to viewers at all costs. What do most viewers like? The weather, for one. That’s why local news spends more and more time on weather reports.
Many viewers also enjoy stories about noteworthy people or celebrities; that is why ‘reality’ programming is so popular. How is real journalism supposed to compete against shows like Jersey Shore or Desperate Housewives that are purely entertainment? News shows should be a in a genre all of their own, but with big businesses buying up all of journalism, they are forced to compete in the ratings game just like shows that are there to entertain and not to inform.
Informational television can be entertaining, but informational television must be careful to not become entertainment first and informational later. As this line is crossed more and more, famous people known for their entertainment begin trying their hand at what they call ‘journalism.’
Now, I don’t want to sound like a journalism elitist either. Anyone can be a journalist if they stick to some basic principles. Journalism should always be (1.) an effort to inform with (2.) truth being the first responsibility and as a (3.) discipline of verification using (4.) objectivity as a process.
Yet, many times these principles are ignored. Examples of this can be seen nearly every day, but the most glaring and infamous example occurred earlier this year when actor Sean Penn interviewed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. This may not have been so notable had the meeting not occurred while Guzmán was on the run from authorities after an intricate escape from prison.
Obviously, there are many ethical implications of the interview. The first being the fact that Penn agreed to interview a criminal who was on the run instead of turning over the details of his whereabouts to the authorities. Some try to defend this decision by pointing out Guzmán’s power and how Penn would most likely be hunted by El Chapo’s men if the drug lord’s location was turned over to authorities. I understand this could happen, but I don’t buy the argument. If Penn was concerned about his own safety he wouldn’t have even considered the idea of an interview with Guzmán.
What immediately concerned me was the disclosure that precedes the piece. It explains that, along with names of people and locations being changed, El Chapo was given the opportunity to read the story before it was published. This is a red flag.
While some newspapers require reporters to fact check with sources a second time before publication, it is well known that sources shouldn’t be given the opportunity to proofread the story. The disclosure claims ‘the subject’ was asked to approve the story, but that ‘the subject’ did not ask for any changes.
Throughout the story Penn seemed more interested in sounding good than doing any actual reporting. Reporting requires meaningful questions that work to bring the truth out of the person being interviewed whether they like it or not. While asking someone easy question after easy question is a great way to write a biography, it is not reporting.
People all around the world could have created more hard-hitting questions to ask a career criminal like El Chapo, but Penn didn’t when he had the opportunity.
Even with all of these ethical questions, the impetus falls on the publisher to take responsibility. After all, a publisher claims responsibility for all content it pushes out under its name. Rolling Stone was coming out of tough times; they needed to make a big splash.
They sure made a big splash, but they forgot what real journalism is in the meantime.