Julie A. Demorest, John Carroll University
There is no denying that news media is big business. The complete coverage of stories and investigative reports are certainly at risk with the rise of media as a business, rather than strictly a service to the public. Over the past few years, there have been a number of cases where television stations or news publications have killed news stories or forced reporters to slant stories due to pressure from advertisers or those in power at the news. This paper will attempt to examine the relationship between social responsibility and news editors, and apply ethical theories to explain what should and can be done. Should editors have the power to kill or slant stories, depending on their own interests or those of their advertisers?
A number of books and articles investigated the relationship between corporate and advertising interests and news coverage. In the May/June 2000 issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Lowell Bergman wrote an article entitled, “Network television news: With fear and favor.” Bergman sums up his findings by saying, “Executives of the network news divisions say that they will report any story of public interest and import without fear or favor, without considering its potential commercial consequences. They say that, but they do not believe it” (p. 50).
Karl Idsvoog’s journal article, “TV sitting on stories to improve ratings,” claims that “the decision on when (or if) to run a piece is no longer determined just by asking is the report concise, clear, and well produced; is it fair, thorough and accurate? There are now more critical questions. What’s the lead-in? Where do we place the promotion? Will it deliver better numbers on Monday or Wednesday?” (Idsvoog, p. 38). However, he adds that “in the long run, adhering to a higher standard of ethics delivers a higher standard of performance” (p. 39).
Carol Guensburg examines the ethical dilemmas of news reporting that involve the media agency’s owner in the December 1998 issue of American Journalism Review (p. 10). In “When the story is about the owner,” she determines that it is up to the individual journalists and news operations to continue reporting important stories, regardless of the impact they may have on corporate or advertising interests (Guensburg, p. 11).
American Journalism Review‘s October 1998 article by Jane Kirtley, “Second-guessing news judgment,” looks at the issue of FCC regulations of news coverage (p. 86). She notes that having the governmental agency get involved in news coverage would likely lead to the consequence that “broadcasters will be discouraged from covering controversial issues at all” (Kirtley, p. 86).
In addition to these and many other articles referencing corporate interests in the media, an organization called Project Censored does annual research to “explore and publicize stories of national importance on issues that have been overlooked or under-reported by the mainstream news media” (Jensen, p. 14).
The relationship between social responsibility and news editors must have a very delicate balance. As stated, news is a business that depends on high ratings and advertising dollars for its survival. However, the news media is also a social organization responsible for informing and educating the public. Corporate interests are important, but the guiding principle for news organizations should be the responsibility to inform the public. News editors have the huge task of determining what stories are told on their news programs or in their publications. The interests of upper management, owners, and outside advertisers make the editors’ decisions even more difficult.
In 1969, the Federal Communications Commission said that “rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest” (Kirtley, p. 86). Yet, it happens – all the time. Two particular cases are especially applicable. The first involves Lowell Bergman, former executive producer of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” As executive producer, Bergman was intimately involved in the 1995 Brown & Williamson situation, when “60 Minutes” decided not to air a report on Jeffrey Wigand. Wigand, former vice president of Brown & Williamson, claimed that the company kept the truth about tobacco’s harmful properties hidden from the public (Bergman, p. 50). He claimed that CBS self-censored itself to avoid a potential lawsuit from Brown & Williamson. Bergman also added that while working for ABC news he discovered that it was against “ABC code” to do an enterprise story about a major advertiser or supplier or to do a critical story on the owner of an NFL team (p. 51).
The second example directly showing how corporate interests impact news coverage took place in 1997. Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, award-winning investigative reporters for WTVT-13 in Tampa, Florida, were fired in December 1997 after they refused to broadcast false reports. Akre and Wilson had been working on a series of reports about a controversial growth hormone being injected into dairy cows for months, and the reports were scheduled to air beginning February 24, 1997. On the eve of the first broadcasts, the reports were pulled from the airwaves after Monsanto (maker of the hormone) complained to Fox Television, parent company of WTVT-13. WTVT management reviewed the reports, found no errors, and rescheduled their broadcasts. Monsanto lawyers sent a threatening letter to Fox’s news division head, and the reports were postponed once again. In the nine months that followed, Akre and Wilson were ordered to rewrite the story with false information more than 80 times, none of which were acceptable to Fox executives. Akre and Wilson threatened to tell the FCC “of a false, distorted, or slanted news report which she reasonably believed would violate the prohibition against intentional falsification or distortion of the news on television.” They were ultimately fired in December 1997. (Trigoboff, p. 27).
Instances such as these, where corporate interests override the public’s need to know,” most likely occur quite frequently. “Almost all media owners have friends who are given preferential treatment in news stories – friends whose ranks include advertisers, politicians, relatives, and acquaintances” (Armao, p. 46). Media critic Ben Bagdikian noted in an article that media organizations often pull back stories when they might offend advertisers (Winch, p. 132). He also stated that “no commercial power should dominate the news – just as no state power should” (Goldstein, p. 25).
In Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Matthew Ehrlich explained one of the factors accounting for trivial, superficial, and often inaccurate reporting – the “competitive ethos,” which he defined as a “powerful, taken-for-granted set of norms within the community of television newsworkers” (p. 196). People who work in the news business have an unwritten set of codes, and they tend to base their work on them. One of those “codes” is that news is “whatever the competition is covering” (Krajicek, p. 184). This leads to a homogenization of the news, with all programs taking on a similar shape.
Another problem with news coverage is that media managers often appear to design news “based on what interests the public rather than what is in the best interests of the public” (Winch, p. 131). Sensationalism in news has certainly been a deterrent to credible and accurate reporting. The great news anchor Walter Cronkite has said that “the networks now do news as entertainment” (McCartney, p. 44). The public wants to see the wildest, craziest, and most outlandish news stories – not necessarily the stories that would have the greatest impact on their lives.
The “competitive ethos” factors listed above indicate one of the reasons why the role of the news editor is so crucial. It is up to the news editor and his team of editors to determine what is important to the public on a “need to know” and “right to know” basis, with “want to know” and “don’t necessarily want to know, but need to show it to the public to gain ratings” much less important.
In his book, The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian says that “because the country’s top editors are being integrated into the management imperatives of the corporation, journalists, through their editors, become less responsible for the integrity of the news and more for the profitability of the whole enterprise. That is not journalism. It is advertising and marketing. Combining journalism with advertising and marketing ultimately will destroy the integrity of the news” (Edge, p. 197).
There is no clear-cut answer to the social responsibility and corporate interests conflict. Adopting a communitarian ethic based on the needs of society would probably make editors’ decisions easier. Communitarianism insists that “mass-media structures make a decisive break with individualistic capitalism” (Christians, p. 14). Deni Elliott’s three nonnegotiable principles of journalism should apply to news editors and management as well, and are especially applicable to determining content of television news (Christians, p. 55). Her first principle is that “news reports should be accurate, balanced, relevant, and complete” (Christians, p. 55). Truth is the most important factor in news, so if a story is not honest, it should not be news. The second principle is that “journalists share the principle that reporting should avoid harm” (Christians, p. 55). While journalists should only report stories that avoid harm (and not cause it), they should also be careful to report stories that would possibly cause, or allow, harm to occur if not reported. Elliott’s third principle for journalists is “to report information that viewers and readers need to know” (Christians, p. 56). As stated previously, it is essential that the news media provide vital information to the American public. The media has a social responsibility to share its wealth of information, especially when the news would have a direct impact on lives.
The pragmatic thought of John Dewey could be applied to this ethical dilemma as well. In his book, Democracy and Education, Dewey identifies four Theories of Morals: the inner and the outer, the opposition of duty and interest, intelligence and character, and the social and the moral (Dewey, 1916). The opposition of duty and interest is directly applicable to the corporate interests/news media dilemma. The opposition of duty and interest is defined as distinguishing the difference between acting on principle and acting on interest. Dewey explains acting on principle as acting “disinterestedly, according to a general law, which is above all personal considerations (1916). Acting on interest is “to act selfishly, with one’s own personal profit in view” (Dewey, 1916). A news organization choosing to run a story that negatively impacts an important advertiser would be seen as acting on principle. The news organization would be acting without interest and above their personal considerations of how their jobs and profits might be impacted. Choosing not to run the story would be acting on interest, with personal and professional profits in clear view.
This paper attempted to explain that corporate interests are having a large impact on what the news media report to the American public, and theorized about how the situation could be changed. Adopting a communitarian ethic would allow the news media to more accurately and completely report the news that is important to the daily lives of Americans.
Corporate interests are important, but the guiding principle for news organizations should be the responsibility to inform the public. In The Messenger’s Motives, John L. Hulteng stated that “the central, ruling ethic of journalism is to report the news of the world dependably and honestly” (p. 171). Given that corporate interests do play a role in what appears on television news and in newspapers, what should be done? The news giants and advertisers aren’t going to go away, so the public and news media need to share the social responsibility. The American public needs to realize that the news media aren’t always giving the complete story. They should not rely solely on television and print news media for information, but should look elsewhere for alternative sources of news. The news media have considerable impact on what we know, and they need to realize the impact that their work has on the lives of the American public, and report the news as accurately, completely, and objectively as they can, for the good of the people. A communitarian ethic based on Deni Elliott’s principles and John Dewey’s theory of the opposition of duty and interest would be a good start.
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