Journalism Faces Its New Choices

IT is graduation time, and all across the country, schools of communication are disgorging thousands upon thousands of hopeful, would-be journalists who want to make their careers in the exciting news and information business.

Their hopes are tinged with concern. Will they get jobs?

With the technological revolution sweeping the world, how will printed newspapers fare in competition with electronic means of delivery? What about TV network news staffs, shrinking in the face of budget cuts?

Those with a passion for journalism, who have talent and integrity, and the innovative capacity to adapt to changing times, will survive very nicely.

Yes, news organizations have cut back. But they are leaner and more efficient as they face the future. Already there are signs of an upturn in revenues.

Yes, there is uncertainty about the character of the instruments we will use to transmit information in years to come. But whatever their form, there will still be a need for journalists who can gather, weigh, edit, and present the news.

What should be of more concern to the journalists of tomorrow is the content of the information they will deal in. What are the ethical decisions they must make that will determine its tone, its comprehensiveness, its credibility?

This is a debate that is embroiling the present practitioners of journalism as their news organizations explore - some would say descend to - new levels of intrusiveness.

The names of rape victims, traditionally kept confidential, are broadcast nationally. Gennifer Flowers sells her tale of dalliance with Governor Bill Clinton to a supermarket tabloid and upscale newspapers rush to carry it. Arthur Ashe wants to keep secret the fact that he has AIDS, but a newspaper forces him to go public. A major network puts disguised and anonymous sources on the air to charge illegal drug use in Governor Jerry Brown's home. A Seattle newspaper ends the career of Senator Brock Adams by

publishing charges of sexual misconduct against him from eight women who decline to be named in the story.

Journalists and the public are divided. Is this legitimate investigation of people who, by pursuit of power or the accident of fame, have forsaken their rights to privacy? Or is it a new trend toward peeping, prying prurience on the part of the press?

On the one hand Geneva Overholser, the editor of the Des Moines Register, thinks the press is too timid, too afraid of offending people. The press, she says, should be "wide open and boisterous, unleashed and rambunctious." How does she view gossip? "It's not up to me to embrace it, to approve it or to reject it. It's up to me to acknowledge it and, yes, to publish it," she said in a recent speech.

On the other hand Ward Just, war correspondent-turned-novelist, says the current political coverage of the presidential election campaign is the "worst in my ... memory." An editor, he argued in a Washington Post article, "is supposed to edit. To edit is to choose." Newspaper editors, he argues, seem to think they are "avenging angels disguised as mailmen; anything that drops into the slot gets delivered."

The private life of a presidential candidate is legitimate for inquiry and comment if it reveals character flaws that would affect his decision-making in office. But when does such investigation become excessive muckraking? When does it reflect merely the drive of an ambitious reporter to hit the front page or the nightly news? Or the desire of a news executive to sell more newspapers or capture more viewers?

Former Boston Globe Editor Tom Winship says, "Newspapers that chase the down market recklessly may ... slightly improve their bottom line, but not for long." David Lawrence, outgoing president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says newspapers that "become the print equivalent of seven-second sound bites, serving up great scoops of sizzle and sex," will fail.

Many of these ethical judgments confronting the journalists of tomorrow will be made on deadline, under pressure. They are determined case by case. Journalism textbooks offer no pat formulas for their resolution. But a healthy concern for principle and fairness is a good foundation.

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