What Happened to Mainstream Journalist Ethics?

Question: Where are journalist ethics these days when we need them as much as ever? 

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite television news 1976.

My answer: Real journalists are trying as hard as ever. The tradition of journalist ethics is strong inside the profession among those who are still operating as reporters of news. News values, the goal of objectivity, the need for facts and quotes, the ideal of objective truth lives on. They teach it in schools and the pros pass it on from one generation to the next.

When I look at what comes out of AP, Time, major network news, CNN, and MSNBC these days I see a lot of people trying to report the news as best they can. I see them respecting the difference between fact and opinion, trying to distinguish the one from the other, and trying to report as close to truth as they possibly can, looking for evidence to establish what’s true.

Journalist Ethics vs. So Much More Noise

But they face a lot more dissonance than they used to. There is tremendous competition for attention now, from…

Citizen news and social media in general. Twitter can literally supplant the professional journalists in some kinds of breaking news. Think earthquakes, hurricanes, crime. Cellphone videos spread on social media are eye-witness accounts on steroids. Instant news is real and its often quicker than professional news and just as true.

Agenda-driven social media in particular, the scourge of real reporting.  Like the social media deluge that may have affected voters in the last U.S. presidential election. And also brand-driven content marketing that looks like feature stories. We are in a world of competition for attention, and legitimate news reporting has way more competition than it used to.

Journalist Ethics vs. Manipulated News

Agenda-driven opinion masked as news. It acts like news. It competes with news. It started in the middle 1990s with the rise of Fox News. Now we have journalism driven not be traditional journalistic ethics but by political opinion acting as if it were news. So, for example, polls show tens of millions of people still, in 2017, believe something as obviously false as the birther allegations against former president Barack Obama. And just last December a poll showed that 49% of those polled believed ‘leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse.’ (Source: Polls reveal sobering extent of nation’s fact crisis.)

Radical change in the underlying structure of the business of news. For most of the second half of the 20th century, news was paid for by advertising. To maximize the revenue, news had to stay in the middle and bring in people from both sides. Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley and their peers needed to stay balanced, honor facts, and stay as objective as possible to maximize the audience. Fox news changed that. And now the business model is changing, as advertising is less important, the audiences are bigger, and appealing to tribes on right or left is commercially attractive. Reporters in several major news outlets are paid according to social media engagement, not traditional measures of good reporting.

Where I’m ‘coming from’

I was a reporter and foreign correspondent with United Press International three years and McGraw-Hill World News for five years. I have a master’s degree in Journalism (with honors). Decades ago I switched careers for software and entrepreneurship. But I continued to follow journalism as columnist, and, for more than 10 years now, blogger and follower of, and writer about, social media. I write a column in my local newspaper. And I’ve had a daily news habit, reading the news, following the news, for 60 years.

Source: This is based on my answer, in Quora. The question is Are modern journalists as concerned with objectivity and factual accuracy as they were in the past?.

Image: By U.S. News & World Report photographer Thomas J. O’Halloran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  • Robert Bahn says:

    Tim, I hear a speech from the president and then listen to the news reports from different TV news programs and they report what he said with such a slant coming from both sides. And what they report is not what the president said. Do you know of a national news source that reports it correct. Before our current president I relied on NPR. But even they have started using adverbs and adjectives that really have you think they are inputting their spin on the report. I never had to worry back in the days of Cronkite etc. They seemed to go our of their way to report it like it was. Fair and balanced.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Robert, thanks for the addition here. Honestly, I trust AP, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, New York Times and Washington Post, among others for accurate reporting. Not that they don’t miss the mark on occasion, not that they are perfect, but I do believe in the underlying intention of objective reporting. That’s my honest opinion. For example, last night I watched Donald Trump speaking in Phoenix and this morning my local newspaper published an AP story that seemed to report accurately what I saw. The report included several points not favorable to Trump, but it seems like a fair reflection of what he said. It included his distortion of previous remarks, his rant against the press, and his support for convicted racist ex-sheriff Joseph Arpaio. On the whole it put him in an unfavorable light, but I think he did that, not the reporting about it.

      But of course this is a matter of opinion. I respect yours, and I’m glad to see it here, even if different from mine.

      • Robert Bahn says:

        So true about respecting each other opinion. Mine is different than yours. Some say the truth is in the middle. Not what the left leaning media reports or what the right leaning media reports, but somewhere in the middle. Rationalization is what both sides seem to want to do instead of reporting the news. They give their opinion and then rationalize why they think it by bringing up the past to support their view. Not real reporting. Your list of news sources are all left leaning for sure. And the others are right leaning. But I would like to know a news source that is telling it like it is, not using their agenda to report the news., It seems like both parties are trying to get even for what the other one did to them. I always tell people it was a lot better before the Senator John Tower incident years ago. Seems like they have been getting even with each other since then.

        What the republican party said when Obama was elected is the same thing the democrats said when Trump was elected. There are long histories in other countries of two sides just getting even and they never have peace. The baby boomers will all be dead in about 30 years and this country will be a lot different than it is now. And not for the better I might add.

  • John C. Dvorak says:

    It did not begin with Fox News. It became apparent when Fox News created a different narrative. It was going on all the time. The Hearst promoted Spanish American War, involvement in WWI, the Pantages Affair, on and on. All bullshit.

    • Tim Berry says:

      John, thanks for dropping by. You make a good point here, but would you also agree that the Hearst-like brazenly yellow journalism had subsided by the 1950s, fallen out of favor? And we had the goal of the middle ground for several decades, between WWII and Fox News?

    • Tim Berry says:

      John, thanks for dropping by. You make a good point here, but would you also agree that the Hearst-like brazenly yellow journalism had subsided by the 1950s, fallen out of favor? And we had the goal of the middle ground for several decades, between WWII and Fox News?

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