Weird Ways of News.

Chapter Eight: The Dark Side of Luke Newsmonger

In this day of the web and social media, when news is as plentiful as sand on a Sand on the beach.beach, it's hard for us to believe those grains can gather into anything powerful. At the individual level, that's usually true. On our own we have little power to express ourselves, just another grain of sand. But funnel what you know through the media manufacturing process and you can pack grains of information into blocks of power.

These blocks pass between individuals and groups to redistribute the power balance of a community. At the level of local news, particularly, the power of information is passed from those who have it to those who don't through the brokerage of the media.

How that power ought to be manufactured, packaged, and distributed forms the study of media ethics.

You'd like a for instance, but this time you don't get one. Instead, you get case studies. Those who study journalism ethics like case studies because they take philosophical or theoretical arguments into the messy gutters of real news production. That's where news reporters hang out.

Case Studies

Case One: Working as a city hall beat reporter, you receive reports from five female city hall workers who claim that the mayor has sexually harassed them. They want to make their allegations public if you will withhold their names. How do you respond?

Case Two: As an investigative reporter for a new web-based news service, you've found documents showing a connection between birth defects and a particular pollutant known to be generated by a local industry employing a good percentage of residents in your community. The company's discharge into your river sometimes reaches above standards some scientists consider safe, although they may not be above legal limits. How do you report this—or do you?

Case Three: The prominent chair of your town's school board has been seen drunk in a local bar, and her extra-marital relationship with a young schoolteacher is well known among teachers. Do you report it?

This reflects a tiny sample of the many common situations local news reporters face. Perhaps not every day, but likely someday. Decisions they make affect the distribution of information between groups, and the power that comes with it.

In Case One, suppose a news operation decides to report the allegations. Telling people shifts power from the mayor to the public, who now have power to act based on information they did not have before. How they use that power is up to them. The politician also retains some power. Interaction between the two will determine the outcome of this power shift.

For instance, the mayor could deny allegations, perhaps even sue the power broker (the news operation) for harming his reputation—that is, for libel. He might ignore allegations and hope voters have short attention spans. He might hold onto his office until public criticism or the next election makes it impossible for him to continue. He might resign. But his options are diminished compared to what they were before power was shifted from him alone to the public.

In contrast, an informed public could protest the politician's behavior, degrading the credibility he needs to be politically effective. Other authorities whose job it is to investigate allegations of sexual harassment could take action based on this information. A well-liked mayor might rise above the criticism. Perhaps the allegations won't be taken seriously.

We can't predict what will happen. We can say that options and constraints open to everyone involved changed following the media's report. Some found themselves with more options. Others found themselves with more constraints. People who have more options have more power. People who have more constraints have less power. In between stands the media, in the role of redistributor.

In the classic 1981 Hollywood film Absence of Malice, a reporter played by Sally Field asks her editor whether she should publish some sensitive personal information. The answer is yes, "Let the people decide." That's a common justification for publishing ethically questionable information, and it reflects journalists' instinctive belief that their work is to distribute power to a general audience, by way of information. That is, as Joseph Pulitzer thundered a hundred years ago, "To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable!" What the audience now newly comforted does with that information is up to them; they now have the power to act. The media as conduit have affirmed "the people's right to know."

Those who study journalism ethics, of course, believe the media as power broker must take some responsibility for those glib "let the people decide" affirmations. Just because you serve as an intermediary or packager doesn't mean you brush off all responsibility for the result. If this were true we wouldn't be arresting drug dealers. To guide the packager of news we offer a study of ethics.

Case One is based on a real story from 1992. U.S. Senator Brock Adams of Washington State faced sexual harassment accusations from eight women. The women, whose names were kept anonymous, took their case to the Seattle Times. Adams denied the allegations, but did not run for reelection, citing the stain on his reputation.

Adams probably had the power to be reelected until the Times passed some of it to an opposing group. That group then had the power to damage and potentially destroy his chance for reelection.

Did Sen. Adams' opposition have the right to that power based on allegations from anonymous sources—that is, the right to know? That decision had to be made by the power broker, the local media.

Case Two: Reporting this information shifts power from the manufacturer to the public. It also shifts from the employees, who now may have no power to save their jobs, if the plant is forced to close. In fact, this case represents the common journalists' dilemma of whether to broker power away from a group when that transfer risks damage employees, the community, even a whole region.

Case Three: Who benefits from the power redistribution if you're reporting the school board chair's actions? Who is harmed? Should such an exchange be brokered by the local media?

To find answers to these and dozens of other ethical dilemmas local news media inevitably face as de facto power brokers, journalism students turn first to lawyers. Question: Is it legal? The media-consuming public is often surprised to find that the answer is usually "yes." Public officials and famous people seldom sue successfully for libel or invasion of privacy. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says nothing about who gets hurt in a media-manufactured power shift. Later libel and privacy laws have firmed up a few instances, but in the United States it's still famously difficult to successfully drag a law into a complaint against those in the media who sling ink by the barrel—or electrons by the gigabyte. So out slink the lawyers, and in parade the philosophers.

Study of media ethics mostly is a study of plain-wrapper ethics. Media ethicists debate two thousand years of philosophy, listed below in terms of approaches most closely related to news manufacture.

The Golden Rule: How Would You Feel?

Those of us who remember feeling influence of religion at any point in our lives will recognize the admonition, "Do under others as you would have them do unto you." Most major religions—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist—repeat this in some form. So do most mothers as they mediate battling four year olds: "How would you like it if I took away your Fluffy Dumpster Squeeze Toy? Then give it back to Courtney right now!" We rely day by day on this rule to settle all kinds of puny disputes in our own lives, so why not apply it to the big important media? Sometimes that works: A reporter treats her source with respect, as she would like to be treated. More often in this business, though, it falls short as a widely applicable rule. Even though I would not like to be treated like Senator Adams in the case above, I might see it as my duty to report the accusations. This suggests the second common approach to media ethics.

Duty-Based Ethics: People Are Counting on You, Don't Let Them Down

Ask working journalists to name one philosopher of ethics they remember from college journalism classes, and they'll probably respond, "No clue." But the few who do remember will probably name Immanuel Kant, peerless promulgator of deontological philosophy. "Deon," from the Greek "duty," attracts newspeople who believe their audience has a "right to know," and that they have a duty to serve that right. If you claim as your duty always to tell the truth, for instance, you won't be able to lie, even if a lie could be a good thing. "How do you like my hair?" "It's ugly." "Why won't you come to my party?" "You're boring." Uncompromising Kantians don't easily keep friends.

At the level of mass media, this duty-based judgment hits a snag when duty hurts people. A crazed gun-wielder is holed up in an outhouse with a 15-year-old hostage and a laptop for social media access. Police ask the press to report falsely that cops plan to storm the outhouse from the front. Actually, they plan to sneak through from the back. Do you report the lie to help the cops, or tell the truth and jeopardize the victim? Many news people would report the lie, justifying a third ethical approach.

Greatest Good for Greatest Number: Feed the Multitudes

In the hostage case, the great number is society as a whole. The community will be better off in the long run if temporarily misled to save the victim. This philosophy of utilitarianism comes in handy when media gatekeepers face an issue clearly at odds with the fortunes of a few. In the pollution case above, you can easily argue that the public ought to know about the pollution, even though it will harm the company and its employees. They are the smaller number, that weakest link.

Will you rely on utilitarianism, then, by posing as a custodian in a local hospital in an attempt to document poor patient care? How about surreptitiously recording party conversations for later publication? Does the "greatest good" support the right to lie? Many of us feel ethically uncomfortable going to those lengths, and we draw encouragement from another ethical principle.

The Golden Mean: A Little of This, a Little of That, Is Best

Aristotle's ancient precept suggests avoiding extremes. You take two aspirin, you feel better. You take 20, you don't feel 10 times better. Moderation is the goal. As a reporter you may believe the public could benefit from the findings of that sneaky janitor-journalist, but reaching to that extreme to gather the information offends the Golden Mean. You might report the school board chief's drinking bouts if she ends up in jail for public inebriation, but the Golden Mean says you probably wouldn't add the salacious details of the affair.

Most of us who survive the try-anything extremes of adolescence recognize the benefits of a little moderation in our personal lives. It feels safer. It offends fewer. It seems easier. We may ride a motorcycle, but not jump a canyon. We may climb a stairway, but not Mount Everest. We may sip our cappuccino, but not in a biker bar.
Of course, moderation can sound bland, both personally and journalistically. Readers do respond to immoderate headlines screaming, "Fat People Risk Sedentary Death Syndrome!" Moderation in the media may not even be possible. Is it ethical to accept a free trip to Hollywood to report the latest big-budget flick? Either it is or it isn't; it won't help to accept a free flight, but promise to buy your own cappuccino. The problems of applying ethical principles to real-life media dilemmas lead many journalists to adopt a standard ethical technique long-familiar to most of us.

Egoism/Situational Ethics: Do What You Feel

Ethicists might argue that this is no ethical principle at all, but admit that it's a common fallback plan, journalist or not. Egoism would suggest that, instead of "greatest good for greatest number," the choice becomes "greatest good for me alone." Situational ethics would suggest choices rationalized on a moment's mood or intuition.

No local news professional even vaguely concerned about his or her reputation would admit to either of these ethics strategies. Ask an editor to justify the decision to run a front-page feature on crime and lust in the school board office. She will usually produce arguments centering around the "public's right to know," or, "We reflect life as it is, not as we'd like it to be," or that great American fallback, "It's freedom of the press, dude!" Yet none of these has much to do with ethics. The First Amendment is a legal document. The "public's right to know" is the media's interpretation of the legal document. As we noted back in Chapter One, Graf One, real life includes everything and everyone; journalists select from this to manufacture a "view of reality." To use such "rights" and "freedoms" arguments in a discussion of ethics is an easy giveaway that the editor really based his or her decision on a moment's mood—or on the greatest good for the publication's profit margin.

So a big share of media professionals apparently rely on nothing more than the seat of their pants in making day-by-day ethical decisions. This seems surprising, given that every major professional media group has long published explicitly worded codes of ethics. These are available everywhere: online, in trade magazines, in most ethics textbooks. But visit any local newsroom, and it's a safe bet you won't see such a code posted on cubicle walls next to the no-smoking signs and yellowed snippets of "Dilbert" comic strips. In fact, a student in one of my ethics classes a few years ago polled local television news directors to find that most weren't even aware that these ethics codes existed.

If most journalists seldom claim to remember their college ethics classes and don't refer to published codes, how do they make ethical decisions? That seat-of-the-pants has to come from somewhere. In those messy real-world gutters, journalists make most ethical decisions not so much on journalistic ethics, as on professional motivations. The big three: money, affirmation and prestige.

Money and Luke Newsmonger

Have we not already discussed money as a media motivator? Of course, journalists know they won't be working long if their product fails to attract a sizable audience. Money.Direct your news operation down this road and soon you'll come to a crossing. Perched on the well-worn signpost directing us toward the low road, a black-caped figure wields a light saber spewing C-notes. A chilling voice behind the black plastic mask invites:

"Come, Luke Newsmonger, come—to the dark side."

The creepy hand draws toward the sign that reads "Sensationalism."

Temptation to run lust and legs in search of lucre goes back to the beginning of the news, more than 300 years ago. Ever available from those masses is a pool of eyeballs ready to clamp onto stories of murderous drifters, cute dogs, wacky crooks, celebrity calamity, tragic victims, silly sports stars, and whatever else might amuse, and might even be true.

In the United States the supermarket tabloids built an empire on sensationalism. Their circulation now is being carved away by formerly mainline journalists tippy-toeing toward that low road. In the local news game journalists seldom venture quite as far down. Not because they can't, but because their generally more conservative set of news consumers won't stomach full-blown sensationalism of local events. It's one thing to sensationalize the Casey Anthony murder trial. Who has met Casey personally? (OMG. Who would want to?) In a smaller community you're more likely to have some acquaintance with the characters and situations. Know what? Screaming headlines and raucous writing become less palatable when the subjects sit on your own community's doorstep.

Money as a motivator takes on a different kind of importance to individual journalists making day-by-day ethical decisions. Not that a journalist's behavior will run to accepting bribes. Such nakedly unethical (and possibly illegal) behavior seldom happens anymore in the United States. (In Rupert Murdoch's British media, on the other hand...) But if a journalist manages to see a few of her big stories published or broadcast, her personal rewards will likely include sweeteners in the pay packet. At the least, rewards will include a few pats and perks falling into the next category.


Everyone wants to be appreciated for his or her professional efforts. We get that by pleasing our superiors, those on whose approval we rely for a living.You're faced with an ethical decision over broadcasting video of a dramatic drowning, complete with victim and shocked bystanders. Seeing that broadcast on the nightly news might be tough for the victim's family. But showing such a powerful tape could win you applause for drama and ingenuity, proof that you're a real news hunter and not a lazy cappuccino slurper. Picture that glowing quarterly job evaluation. Not only that, but such strong coverage can enhance your professional prestige.


The truth is that city council and county commission stories seldom win awards, important as they may be. A gripping story about a local drowning has potential, however. Even more potential may lie in an investigative piece on local social service agencies, a story that relies partially on testimony from disgruntled employees and a conversation overheard by a passing reporter. While these examples may be ethically dicey, they could shift power enough to change a community's safety laws or to initiate improved service from agencies important to community welfare. Such stories attract notice of groups looking for potential prize-winners.

Hunger for prestige at its extreme attracts even brilliant writers to try their hand at massaging a fact now and then. Or, to use the harsh technical term, "writing fiction." In one famous embarrassment to the news profession, Washington Post writer Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a gripping account of an eight-year-old drug user. Problem: she made it up. Oops. Had to give back that Pulitzer. Of course, Cooke probably would not have been found out had she not temporarily enjoyed the spotlight of this ultimate symbol of prestige.

In Atlanta news hounds enjoyed the professional prestige of getting it first, splashing the story that security guard Richard Jewell was prime suspect in the 1992 bombing at the Olympic Games. Problem: he was never charged, was later cleared, and still later he sued for libel. Oops. So much for the prestige of being first. But had he been guilty, it could'a been big, really big.

Local media usually try to do what's right for their readers and their community. But they do so for reasons often not based on ethical philosophy, but on expediency and simple human decency. Be fair. Tell the truth. Be polite to people. Respect others. These could be posters in a kindergarten class. They work fairly well in a newsroom too, unless overwhelmed by the infection of the motivational big three.

More to Read


• Mitchell Stephens, A History of News. From the Drum to the Satellite. New York: Viking, 1988, 100-31.

Richard Jewell and the Olympics

• Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy, "The Legacy of Richard Jewell," Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1997,

Ethics Cases

• Clifford G. Christians, Kim B. Rotzoll, and Mark Fackler, Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning, 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1987.

Immanuel Kant and the Categorical Imperative

• James A. Jaska and Michael S. Pritchard, Communication Ethics: Methods of Analysi, 2d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994, 127-33.

Aristotle and the Golden Mean

• Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases, 2d ed. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark, 1994, 6-8.

Journalism Ethics on Film

• Sydney Pollack, director, Absence of Malice (starring Paul Newman and Sally Field). 1981, rated PG.

By the way...

Afflict the comfortable: Actually, Pulitzer did not originate this phrase already common in journalism at the turn of the last century. It's attributed to Finley Peter Dunne, the famous Chicago columnist (famous if you lived at the turn of the last century) who wrote as an Irish immigrant named Mr. Dooley. Below is the whole passage. Dunne's purposeful misspellings add character to the piece, although nowadays we no longer consider it funny to parody others' accents.

"Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th'ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward."

The First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Forty-five words fiercely debated from supreme courts to coffee bars for more than two centuries. But the press freedom clause proved not at all controversial at the time of its 1791 ratification. James Madison's careful convention minutes show little evidence of disagreement. Indeed, similar laws had already been approved in all the states. Perhaps this silence over the right to free expression in the United States showed that delegates preferred to avoid wasting time revisiting an issue long plowed over. Would that some legislators nowadays could find the same common sense!
Note that nowhere in this amendment appear such words as "fair," "objective," unbiased," or "ethical." People are sometimes shocked to find that indeed their local news media can be unfair, slanted, prejudiced, even liars—and still stay within the law's limits.

James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald: In his proto-Matt Drudge Report of the 1830s, Bennett took advantage of new high-speed technology in his coverage of lurid murder trials. He included intimate details, only falling slightly short of Drudge's famous "semen-stained dress" from the President Bill Clinton scandal. His gossipy interviews and focus on well-known socialites sold for but a penny, earning him plenty of scorn but readers aplenty. Bennett's once-sensational Herald still exists today through a byzantine set of circumstances that culiminated in the now-sober International Herald Tribune, based in Paris.