The phone-hacking scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct tabloid News of the World continues to ricochet across Britain, bringing down powerful figures. But if there is a long-term lesson in these revelations about the unethical tactics of some journalists, it is this:
Media consumers have choices and can choose not to read, watch, or listen to news dug up in ways that violate their own standards of decency. Methods do matter, not just results.
Judges don’t tolerate court evidence gathered by crooked means. Mall shoppers wouldn’t buy clothes made by child labor or purchase a diamond sold to fuel Africa’s wars. Many consumers don’t eat endangered fish species or use lumber unless it is cut from sustainable forests.
Industries respond to the standards of customers, and the news business is no different. The News of the World, for instance, had been open in the past about using private voice mails to reveal a sensational story, and yet millions of Britons of all classes continued to buy the publication. Only when it became known that the paper had hacked into the voice mail of abducted teenager Milly Dowler did readers finally react in moral outrage.
This scandal about a popular scandal sheet has forced Mr. Murdoch to close the 160-year-old newspaper and personally apologize to the dead girl’s family. Official probes are now under way about both the hacking as well as alleged bribes to police for tips on politicians, royalty, and celebrities.
Still missing from this evolving story is a spotlight on an appetite for scandal that knows no bounds. The supercompetitive British press – not just Murdoch’s tabloids – may still continue to test the boundaries of ethical tactics in trying to get juicy scoops. While the media certainly should dig hard for news, it must also be transparent about its methods and not engage in deceit and dishonesty – and certainly not illegal means.
Many news organizations reveal their codes of conduct, such as never paying for news or never allowing reporters to pretend to be someone they are not in a sting operation. News photos cannot be altered and quotes cannot be made up.
It is up to editors to make sure reporters follow such rules and to reveal infractions when they occur. But consumers, too, should not condone skulduggery in journalism. And they can hold reporters accountable by boycotting unethical news outlets until they clean up their act.
News methods can only be as good as an audience demands. And with today’s 24/7 urgency for news of all kinds on the Internet, temptations may only grow to use devious means in reporting.
The British hacking scandal could have a silver lining by putting up a mirror to news consumers and forcing them to think twice about the methods of news organizations, especially the racy tabloids and celebrity-focused media that play to voyeurism.
Journalist integrity is a two-way street, and both sides need to be paved with high principles.