We hear it often: a reporter with no potential stories makes one up. Fabricating material is, after all, easy. Why go out looking for a story when it’s quicker to whip one up? After all, what are the odds that someone is going to go looking for Mr. and Mrs. Branson from Nowhere, Kentucky, who commented on a controversial local stabbing that no one else will talk about?
The end of the story is always the same. The reporter is publicly lambasted, made an example of, fired, and sent out to the hills, never to be seen in any reputable journalistic venture again. Problem solved. In the end, the media institution itself is always assumed to have proper ethics -- a reporter of theirs screwing up, fabricating a quote or even tapping a phone line is assumed to be a flaw in the reporter, not the source. The credibility of the institution may be affected, but not much.
Not nearly as much as it would by the break of a story about the institution operating with unethical standards. This situation is rarer; news sources are run by teams, checks and balances, and it’s assumed that at least one person has the common sense to cut unethical behavior off at the path. It isn’t worth the risk, and with multiple heads together, that seems to be the general consensus.
When a media company is outed for unethical behavior, be it phone tapping, illegal gathering of information or story fabrication, it rocks the world, particularly if it’s a large company like News Corp.. News Corp. was busted in 2009 for various illegal activities including phone and computer hacking.
If these infractions on ethical standards were committed by a single reporter, the story would end like all the others, but News Corp. was enormous in the media world, and its shutdown had ripple effects all over the world. Just last month a second newspaper was under inquiry for issues relating to the News Corp. scandal.
What do these incidents say about the state of modern media? I had a professor once who railed against the fact that there is corporate everything nowadays. He’d probably say that corporations being involved in running newspapers is causing ethical issues. Maybe he’s right.
With a corporation in charge, there is certainly the feel of a business. It’s no longer a simple drive for information that pushes media sources; getting to the story first, fastest and most completely is a drive for popularity, which is in turn a drive for money. More site traffic equals more advertising revenue. This creates a demand for stories, and a demand always means there must be an increase in supply. PRSA suggests that a corporate management team that puts too much pressure on its creation team could be contributing to a rise in unethical behavior.
All of these very real threats to ethical behavior aside, the idea that ethical corruption could be, and in some cases is, stemming from high-up orders is potentially a greater cause for concern. When the CEO of a corporation controlling news flow feels this same pressure to produce and abandons their ethics, the results won’t just affect the media outlet. They will affect the outlet’s sources, their readers, their staff and their credibility.