Journalism Ethics, Herd Mentality

I cringe sometimes when I read my old Niceness posts, the snarky ones. I even deleted a few after some of those same posts popped up on Google searches, most notably the one that took pot shots at my old church. A few years ago, a simple search brought one of my silly blog posts to the top, right up there with the church’s official site. Whoops. This news came to light after my brother, who lives in Las Vegas, got curious one night about some of the old church members and hopped onto Google. Unbeknownest to him, he found himself on our site and to my blog, which he read and was struck by the eerie similarities between his church experience and mine. Then he saw the author’s name.

Back then, it was no problem to attack whatever and whoever through a blog. Friends were entertained, and it felt good to be on the receiving end of their compliments. But it was cowardly, and the church post was the turning point. A couple years back, I went through and axed some of the straight-up offensive ones, specifically those that called out individuals (The Margaret Carney one is safe, though). Typically, writers are uncompromising in their opinions and work, but this was clearly a case of immaturity in an open forum. I was wrong.

Good thing was: Next to no one read our blog. Today, millions get their news – whether national, local, or, in my case especially, sports – from other readers who run their own commentary sites, some that operate with little regard to any ethical code. Everything is fair game. TMZ is now a news source. Perez Hilton is a journalist now, like it or not. Hell, the National Inquirer was one of the first to break the Tiger Woods mess. Even hugely popular sports sites are driven primarily by fans who give little thought to journalistic responsibilities.

That isn’t to say that the majority of these sites are irresponsible in the reporting. Most are. It’s their presentation that irks my inner curmudgeon.

We, as online-first readers and viewers, are a very different audience. We demand entertainment, humor, something shocking, and that truth is forcing writers to adapt quickly. A concern is whether a writer’s ethics will survive the current shift. If internet news continues to shift toward flashy, Click-Me content, and it certainly will continue, then what does this mean for journalism ethics? Will ethics be abandoned in the wake of a changing readership that calls first for entertainment and news second?

In some ways, it already has. This is concerning. It’s a precarious situation to graduate from a journalism school that so engrained in us the importance of responsible, objective reporting, and to now work in a field that almost welcomes a renunciation of those ideals. As the news media continues its staggering evolution, journalists are left debating whether to seek solace in conventions or follow potential readers into the impending online anarchy. Meanwhile, the advertisers are holding the Molotovs.

I’m afraid ethical codes won’t be worth a damn when that first one hits.

* * *

An aside: The writing’s on the wall for print media, but that’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for old-school reporters. In fact, I believe today is a perfect market for budding freelance writers. As dailies continue to cut salaried reporters, the demand for content remains unchanged. So here comes a guy like me, who will kindly do a feature or three a month for $50 to $75 a pop and still have time to offer my services to other papers and online publications. Do a good enough job and it could turn into a regular freelance gig. Meanwhile, the publisher wins because he/she filled his/her news section for a fraction of what it would have cost to pay four to six salaried writers with health insurance and 401Ks.

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