Pulling Journalism From the Abyss

There is no question that the press has a crisis of credibility. It stems from the widespread perception that newspapers increasingly violate basic standards of fairness, accuracy, objectivity, and respect for privacy, in the rush to profit from sensationalizing sex, scandal, and violence. Among many editors there is a growing sense of being forced by the pressures of competition into coverage they would once have rejected as too slipshod, too intrusive, too lurid, and too damaging to individuals and institutions.

In the controversies surrounding President Clinton, in particular, the temptations have been strong for newspapers to bypass traditional journalistic standards. The more uncritically newspapers rush to print the barrage of unsupported rumors and charges, the more they contribute to the erosion of their own credibility.

The 12th century Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides called scandal-mongers "the evil tongue," and described insinuations that sow suspicion without shedding light on the implied offense as "the dust of the evil tongue." The dust of innuendo and calumny always traveled fast; but modern media disseminate it with unprecedented speed.

Incredulity, a good, old-fashioned editorial virtue, is sorely needed by editors as well as readers. It requires that we not be quick to grant credence to what we read and hear. To take seriously the moral challenges that editors face, we must ask about conflicts inherent in the role of editors, in that of the reading public, and in what we mean by "credibility."

Editors as gladiatorial producers

The most common meaning of "editor" (from the Latin ex dato, for "out" and "give") is of one who pulls together materials, sorts it, corrects errors, and pays attention to presentation, then gives out, or publishes, the finished product. "Editor" was also used, in ancient Rome, to designate those responsible for producing the vast, bloody gladiatorial spectacles.

The editor ludorum sent emissaries to track down wild animals to take part in arena hunts. He worked with those who oversaw the training of the gladiators who were to fight to the death and who lined up slaves and convicts to be slaughtered in combat or to be "thrown to the beasts." The editor then pulled together all that was to go into the public spectacle.

"If it bleeds it leads" could have been the motto of these Roman editores. They stood to profit handsomely in the service of the emperor or various commercial and political sponsors. They were also vulnerable to pressures from these sponsors and to public opinion. They vied with one another in how best to coordinate rousing music, colorful banners and costumes, and ritual sacrifice to Diana or Mars and other deities with the violent spectacles, freely laced with sexual exhibitions.

The production of gladiatorial spectacles grew out of funeral rites at which races were run and ritual combat presented to honor the dead. Over time these practices expanded into the vast spectacles that still stand as a prototype for entertainment violence. Both the editores and the publics they served grew increasingly desensitized and numb to excesses that would once have shocked them all.

'We had no choice but to go along'

Part of the anguish for today's best editors is the conflict they sense between meeting standards they've been trained to uphold and overseeing offerings to entertain and titillate.

It's important to study the form and extent of changes with respect to traditional journalistic standards like the rules regarding source checking and those against pandering to morbid curiosity. In what ways have newspapers shifted on these? How widespread have the changes been?

It's important to scrutinize much more critically arguments such as "Once other papers had done it, we had no choice but to go along"; or "If we add the words 'if true' in discussing rumor and innuendo we no longer have to be responsible for checking our sources."

But the public distrust of the press is rooted in profound skepticism about more than editorial and journalistic standards of accuracy, privacy, and fairness. Distrust stems also from dismay at the lack of balance in what is reported, and the emphasis on negative news, such as violent crimes and scandals, in proportions that far outweigh their incidence.

Apart from the unbalanced coverage, the public's distrust is a natural response to the investigative methods that some journalists employ and that some editors permit. These methods are at times fraudulent and oppressive to the point of inhumanity, as in media watches surrounding persons in the news. A profession's credibility and trust are never more at risk than when its members take it as their prerogative to be less accountable than others to basic moral values.

Above all, the public is skeptical about the commercial incentives driving editors to play up sex, scandal, and violent crime to compete for readers and advertising revenue. And the long-standing journalistic aim to be first with a story puts more corrosive emphasis on speed than ever, now that newspapers compete with television and Internet sources. For readers with access to multiple sources of news, where they read or see a particular item first is of far less importance than whether they can trust its accuracy.

The ancient meaning of "editor" reminds us of the influence of owners and the marketplace. And it warns of how easy it is for editors to become so desensitized as to think that biased or inaccurate coverage, exploitative photography, and lurid headlines that would once have struck them as egregious, really are not so bad.

But editors have a corresponding distrust of expressions of public skepticism: "You say you are tired of the wallowing in sex, scandal, and violence in the media; but look at what you turn to first in the papers or on the screen: precisely the latest twist in the Clinton scandals, the sleaziest sex, the most shocking killings."

It's true, the public is conflicted, too. We criticize the media but consume their products. Take the charges and countercharges of White House lying and cheating. Many people are split between two ways of looking at the events: as citizens and as spectators. In the civic mode, they consider the damage being done to innocents. But that civic mode remains on hold for many until they know more about who is doing the lying and who is being lied about. With the civic mode on hold, the field is wide open to engage in the spectator mode. While postponing final judgments, why not take in another episode of the daily White House soap opera?

But as the lines between entertainment and news blur, the spectator mode cannot help affecting the civic mode. As "the dust of the evil tongue" pollutes the atmosphere, it stifles public debate, alienating people still further from politics and public affairs.

Shooting recipient, not messenger

It will be harder for editors to shore up credibility if journalists and citizens become so habituated to scandal and sensationalism that they cease to care about journalistic standards.

As we ask about press credibility, it is indispensable to keep the conflicting roles among editors and the public in clear view. Otherwise it will be too tempting for journalists to reject all serious questions about restoring credibility, perhaps by claiming any such questions to be "shooting the messenger," or by insisting that the public is only getting what it asks for - a form of "shooting the recipient."

* Sissela Bok is the author, most recently, of 'Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment.' This article is an excerpt from her April 1 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

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