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Online news, blogging, and journalistic ethics

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In June of 2008 I attended AlwaysOn’s OnHollywood conference, primarily for the part of the program dealing with online journalism.  In one panel discussion, the moderator asked several CEOs of online news services whether “new media”, including bloggers and the 24-hour news cycle, had caused a deterioration in journalistic ethics.  The moderator hypothesized that, in the old days, the big, respected newspaper in each city was expected to communicate the objective truth in its news pages, even if it might offend large advertisers or large numbers of subscribers.  One panelist called BS on that premise, saying there has never been such a thing as objective journalism.  Even if reporters didn’t allow financial considerations to impact their reporting, said the panelist, the stories that were assigned to the journalists and the news agenda of the paper was impacted by financial considerations.
This panelist said, “Nobody is unbiased. Tell your readers right up-front what your bias is, and let them make up there own minds whether it impacts the credibility of your reporting.  It’s not like it was in the “old days” when there was often only one source of news–now people have hundreds of online newspapers, and thousands of blogs. Let them make up their own minds.” Based on my own observations and a lot of media discussion, including a recent article in the American Journalism Review, I would have to say the panelist was right.

The recent AJR article, “A Porous Wall,” was written by Natalie Pompilio, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Pompilio asks, “As news organizations, in their struggle to survive, blur the line between editorial and advertising, does credibility take a hit?”  Pompilio writes:

“The latest fissure in the wall between editorial and advertising came in April, when the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page advertisement that could easily have been confused for an actual news article. Placed prominently in the left-hand column below the fold, an ad for the police drama “Southland” carried NBC’s peacock logo and was labeled “advertisement,” but it was written in story form as if a reporter had accompanied the police officer who is the show’s main character on a ride-along.

Many in the Times’ newsroom balked, including Editor Russ Stanton. A circulated petition decried the ad as deceptive and said it made “a mockery of our integrity and our journalistic standards.”

The newspaper’s publisher responded that the ad netted a premium rate and was part of the effort to ensure the survival of his publication, which has cut hundreds of jobs in the last year and whose parent company, Tribune Co., has filed for bankruptcy.”

Why are the traditional journalists shocked?  All the journalistic wailing and  gnashing of teeth obscures the fact that news has never, ever been a level playing field.  Big pharmaceutical companies, car companies, insurance companies, banks and more have huge numbers of PR people on staff, plus large outside PR and advertising agencies.  When a news story breaks, how many PR/crisis management people do you think a billion-dollar corporation has working on the problem?  They quickly issue press releases and provide trained, media-savvy people for the “objective” journalist to interview.  In the same situation, who is crafting a PR response and providing trained spokespeople for consumers?  All too often, it’s nobody.

That needs to change, and I’m working with others to develop www.ConsumerNews.com, a news portal that will provide breaking news and commentary from a distinctively pro-consumer point-of-view.  We’re going to make our “bias” clear to readers of the site, and they can evaluate the articles and commentaries knowing they were written by consumer advocates.  If you’re a consumer advocate and you’re interested in supporting a pro-consumer site with your advertising dollars, or by contributing articles or comments from time-to-time, please feel free to contact me.  Also, if you have ideas for topics, please forward them to info@consumernews.com.  It’s time the consumers got a break, for a change.

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About Michael J. Evans

Michael J. Evans is a personal injury lawyer who represents people with claims involving defective medicine or medical devices, other defective products that cause serious injury or death, and environmental cases. Evans also handles whistleblower lawsuits in which employees, or former employees, expose fraud or other illegal conduct by the corporation for which they work(ed), Evans organizes litigation groups of plaintiffs law firms to work with him on these cases nationwide. Evans uses social media, blogs, online video, mobile apps and traditional media to connect with clients, and help other prominent law firms connect with clients.. Evans is also an advocate for the rights of consumers. His primary areas of legal practice are mass torts, and advising law firms on the ethical rules and law governing legal marketing via the Internet and social media.

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