News of the World: Murdoch’s media mess is a wake-up call for journalism

Rupert Murdoch's News of the World is mercifully defunct. Journalists and readers (or viewers, or listeners) should now reassess the very function of journalism itself.

The demise of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid in Britain over alleged phone hacking should be a wake-up call for journalism.

Journalists – and those who read on paper, view on a screen, or listen on radio or TV, to what they produce – should reassess the function of journalism.

Is it to make money? Some owners of newspapers have made a lot of it over the years, but with the advent of the Internet and new technology, those days are gone.

Is it for media owners and managers to manipulate politicians? It should not be. Is it for titillation, or to capitalize on sensationalism? On prurience? On trivia?

Is it to worship celebrity? To highlight depravity and the worst of mankind’s failings? I think not.

Surely journalism at its best – and by whatever means of delivery – is to inform about, and objectively illuminate, the significant events of our times that citizens need to know about, shedding light on dark corners where necessary. Weekly and small daily newspapers do yeoman work keeping their readers informed about local government, taxes, high school sports, and all the detail of community life. Larger newspapers and other, electronic media cover news of the nation and the world that is relevant and significant.

Murdoch knows the difference

The puzzling thing about Rupert Murdoch is that he knows the difference between good journalism and bad.

Years ago, when I sat on the board that awards Pulitzer prizes, I got a call from a reporter at a not-so-admirable Murdoch newspaper. The deliberations of the Pulitzer board are supposed to be confidential, but reporters writing stories about the prizes often call board members for background material.

After I had finished talking, I asked the reporter how he was faring with Mr. Murdoch. I knew from the background clatter that the reporter was in the middle of the paper’s newsroom, but to my astonishment, in a roar that must have been widely overheard, he yelled: “The man’s a ------,” using a five-letter word usually applied to a female of bad repute. I do not know how long the fellow continued working for Murdoch, but the lesson is that journalists themselves well know the difference between superb Murdoch-owned papers like The Wall Street Journal and trashy papers like the now mercifully-defunct News of the World.

Good journalism is responsible

Good journalism is not Wiki-style journalism, shoveling everything on the web, good or bad, injurious, intrusive, or irresponsible, and letting the chips fall where they may. Good journalism is coverage screened for accuracy, taste, and purpose.

Responsible editors publish long shots of the overturned school bus, not close-ups of the mangled bodies. If the US senator is a drunk, they report it, but anguish over whether the tipsiness of his spouse is relevant to his professional performance. Responsible editors who know that the so-called commercial attaché in a certain US embassy is actually the CIA station chief had better have a good reason for outing that person and endangering his or her life.

The News of the World apparently thought it was ethical to plunder confidential conversations of royal family members, politicians, even the voice mails of a murdered 13-year old school girl, then pay hush-money to avoid being found out. It is fitting that it is out of business. If it re-emerges in a new guise we should hope that it will pursue more responsible journalism.

The American media have debated experiments with press councils – independent bodies where aggrieved readers could take for examination a media story they believed unfair, or poorly reported. The American Society of Newspaper Editors used to vote on the desirability of such councils. The non-binding vote was generally one-third for, one-third against, and a third don’t know. In the interests of full disclosure, I was “for.” I saw no harm in scrutiny and opinion by a responsible, independent body that had no control over a news organization and could not curb freedom of the press.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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