Since the media love public opinion polls, here?s one for them: the American Society of Newspaper Editors has just commissioned a survey of 3,000 people. The results are summarized in the title of the study: “Why Newspaper Credibility Has Been Dropping.” It found that 80 percent of the people think journalists are too preoccupied with sensational stories and not concerned enough with simply reporting the news.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors even commissioned “focus groups” to follow-up on these findings. Experts selected groups of people to sit down for lengthy interviews about press problems. As a result of all of this, the editor?s group is launching something called the “Journalism Credibility Project,” a program to encourage eight daily newspapers to focus more on accuracy and objectivity and less on sensationalism.
It is a sad commentary on the state of journalism that an editor?s group would have to run a poll and stage focus groups to find out the obvious. While outside pressure is necessary, there needs to be a commitment to integrity from within a news organization. It?s intereresting to note that, on the very day the results of this survey were being reported by the New York Times, the media were starting to pay more attention to a recent court case in which a federal judge found that a Business Week reporter had lied and violated the law in covering a story on financial privacy.
The case involved the reporter intentionally submitting a false application to a credit reporting agency. He claimed he wanted the information to screen prospective employees but then used the service to look up then-Vice President Dan Quayle?s credit report. The information was published in the September 1989 cover story in the magazine entitled, “Is Nothing Private?” The reporter said he was trying to call attention to a serious problem – the abuse of private financial information.
It was a good story, but it?s comparable to someone breaking into a home and then complaining about how easy it is to engage in breaking and entering. The credit reporting agency sued for $75,000 in actual damages and $45 million in punitive damages. While the judge found that the Business Week reporter had lied and broken the law, he ordered Business Week?s parent company to pay only $7,500 in actual damages—and no punitive damages—because the story had served a public interest. Where would the “Journalism Credibility Project” come down on this case? Would it justify this sensational story because it supposedly served a public interest? What other laws can be broken in the pursuit of a story?
The president of the credit company was outraged, telling the Wall Street Journal, “When the press is given permission to violate the law in order to tell a story, in my personal opinion, that?s wrong.” The judge said the news organization had promised to “never again engage in similar conduct.” But the lawyer for Business Week disagreed, saying it would consider using such tactics on a case-by-case basis. It sounds like the press wants to be above the law.