Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

From public interest to prurient interest

I’m full of admiration for my journalist peers who risk life, limb, and reputation to report on things that people with power don’t want the world to know. But, increasingly, the news media needs practitioners with another kind of courage—being prepared not to publish something.

To a large extent, I still hold to the old maxim that news is something that someone doesn’t want you to print; everything else is just advertising. But sadly that definition is blurring. In the brave new world, news is something that someone doesn’t want us to print, but which will help us sell advertising, thank you very much.

The two are not the same. Yet because the Internet means anyone can “publish” anything, some media outlets are letting their journalistic standards slip–badly. In the old days they wouldn’t have covered so-and-so’s personal scandal, but they do now because it gets a lot of hits on a celebrity gossip blog. We’ve gone from the determining factor being public interest to prurient interest.

Good journalism requires the strength of character to publish something when people don’t want you to. But it also requires the strength of character not to publish something when people may want you to (and it may make financial sense).

This may sound like it’s rejecting the courageous old “publish and be damned” model, but the news media has always chosen to ignore things. The question is, on what basis? Well, there are some simple criteria, like geography—a local newspaper’s decision-making is ruled by zip codes. A specialist publication’s decision-making is guided by the community it serves.

There’s also public concern—back in my young reporter days in the UK, newspapers routinely ignored IRA-related bomb threats that often caused widespread disruption (newsworthy in itself). They wanted to discourage copycats. In war time, there may indeed be questions of national security to consider (which may not be the same as blind patriotism).

Then there’s self-interest—the news media is well known for treading more softly when one of its own is kidnapped in some part of the world. Such kid gloves may come off when covering others from different walks of life who get snatched.

What about considering the impact of what is being reported? I’m not talking about suppression, but responsibility. Just because information is available, does it necessarily have to be disseminated? Or if so, right now?

What a responsibility for those who have to make the call on what to tell and what not to tell—the gatekeepers of our news media. On what basis do they decide? Because it’s interesting? Because it’s important?

Because we can is not the same as because we should. A media outlet that can’t or won’t say no to a story that some people want it to run is being manipulated—as surely as one that can’t or won’t say yes to a story that some don’t want it to run.

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