Thursday, May 12, 2011
Journalism: Not a public service--a consumer service
What we are seeing in media and journalism is an inherent conflict of interest. It is our noble journalistic values facing off against the competitive nature of the industry. With ethics at the heart of this conflict, it provides a slippery slope on both ends of the spectrum that could eventually lead to an individual journalist or media outlet's demise.
The most bothersome cliche that is associated with journalism may be that it is a public service. Sure, this sounds dignified and can easily serve as a rallying cry for trailblazing journalists working in all mediums. However, solemnly swearing to such a statement may not be the brightest thing for a media outlet or individual "journalist" to do--because for the most part it is wrong.
All NPR aside (and that may be a generous omission), media outlets are not an agent of the government. Right there, the idea that they are a public service should be up for question. Media, like several other sectors of the economy, is a business. This makes media not a public service but a customer service.
The customer in this case is twofold: the media consumer and the revenue generating advertiser. They are interlinked. They also share similarities. Both are relatively impatient. Both are what keep media outlets in business. And both do not always put a premium on journalistic values.
In fact, it can be argued that they often prefer entertainment over straight journalism. A racy photo in a magazine--hello, new readers. A revealing but controversial investigative report--goodbye advertisers. The business still ultimately comes down to economics. Which leads to this thought:
There may be diminishing returns to ethics in media.
Journalists likely hate hearing this. But it may be a reality. Certainly there is a point where misguided ethics can be the demise of a media outlet or journalist. However, that means there has to be a point of ethical compliance that renders that outlet or journalist no longer competitive.
Business is sort of a greedy realm. Even if perfect ethics were to be accomplished and the outlet were to be afloat, there would definitely be room to improve profit-wise. Changes to drive profits may compromise ethics. And worst of all to those who cling to that creed, it may be perfectly okay with audiences.
Remember, audiences are the consumer not the public. Fox News does not sweat too much when liberal consumers criticize and boycott their broadcasts. Certainly these liberal consumers are members of the public. The reason Fox doesn't care, though, is because they are not their consumers. Media is a consumer service.
Do advertisers have the right to screen editorial content? As paying customers, it is hard to argue they don't. Do media outlets have the right to tell advertisers no to such requests? They do indeed, but it may come at a cost.
So, when examining whether media should cater editorial content to the desires of advertisers, the answer lies in between advertorial content and editorial content. It is the challenge of finding where that happy medium is that will determine the success of a media outlet.