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Duty to inform, not inflame

POSTED March 18, 2014 8:40 p.m.

 

 

In the past 10 years there's been a shift in news media. Many news organizations went from striving to be the watchdogs of the community to doing everything possible to increase the number of "Likes" they get on a Facebook post, ethics be damned. What's wrong with being liked, you may ask? Aren't media companies in the business of increasing their audience?

While newspapers are businesses, and like any business work to give their customers what they want in order to increase sales, media also has an inherent responsibility to public service.

David Puttnam argues that media has a "duty to care" and to inform, not inflame. Puttnam is an Oscar-winning film producer, former president of UNICEF of the United Kingdom, Digital Champion for Ireland,  and president of the Film Distributors’ Association, just to name a few of this his accomplishments.

According to Puttnam, "Those in the media set the tone and the context for much of our democratic discourse. Democracy, in order to work, requires that reasonable men and women take the time to understand and debate difficult, sometimes complex issues and they do so in an atmosphere which strives for the type of understanding that leads to, if not agreement, than at least a productive and workable compromise."

It's hard to foster a reasonable debate on complex issues when news is driven solely by what is trending on social media sites. News should give audiences information they didn't already know, and not just add fuel to whatever the rumor mill is turning out.

Take, for example, the story of the Crowell Elementary student injured by a pencil in his throat. When that story was first reported by a local website, it read more as one parent's outrage at an incident that happened at an elementary school. Instead of waiting for the police department and school district to release their investigative findings — and get a more complete story of the incident — this website inflamed the issue with multiple stories calling into question the safety of all students at Turlock Unified.

Are all Turlock students in danger of having pencils shoved in their throats? Probably not. More students are in danger of being hit by cars on their way to school than being injured by pencils. But which story is more sensational — 'Student stabbed in throat' or 'Safe routes to school priority for TUSD'?

This sensational versus ethical reporting is a real issue in news media. In a recent CNN "Reliable Sources" show, "Malaysia Air 370: facts vs. speculation," host Brian Stelter had a discussion with Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and former CNN Washington anchor, about the ethics of reporting speculation about a breaking news event in the absence of facts.

A missing airplane carrying 227 passengers is definitely a breaking story that warrants news coverage, despite the few actual facts known. But informed speculation by public safety experts is a far cry from reporting what Joe Blow is posting about the 'hijacked airplane' on his Twitter account.

I think media, especially television networks, have gone too far down the social media rabbit hole when it comes to reporting the news.

In the words of Puttnam, "It has to be possible to balance freedom of expression with wider moral and social responsibilities."

While flipping through the TV channels last week, I caught a few minutes of "Real Time with Bill Maher." Maher just happened to be talking about this very topic. He said that the reason he reads newspapers is to find out what is going on in the world, whether he likes it or not. He said he doesn't really want to read about global warming or what's happening in the Ukraine, but those are things he should know.

I hate to say it, but news media is a little like broccoli. Many people would rather eat pizza and chips all day than a helping of broccoli, but green vegetables are good for us in the long run.

 

 

 

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