Monday, July 9, 2012

The increasingly self-serving ethics of journalism

(As usual, Brad DeLong gets credit for spotting this one)

Just to recap, I've been complaining (whining, moaning, bitching, etc.) about the state of journallism for a while. Many of those complaints assume (explicitly or implicitly) that journalism is forming a dangerously insular and cohesive group identity (I'm writing outside my field so my terminology might be a bit off -- if a social scientist out there has any notes, I'm open to suggestions).

Assuming I'm on to something here, one of the things we would expect is an ethical code that has notably different standards of behavior inside and outside of the group. Intra-group crimes (like plagiarism where the primary victim is another journalist) would be viewed as grave while offenses against subjects and readers would be seen as less serious. This difference would be particularly notable where journalists and non-journalists are mutually responsible for an offense.

Which takes us to the example of the day. As you probably know, the recent health care decision has produced as usual amount of leak-driven coverage. This has deeply offended Charles Lane of the Washington Post. Here's are some of the phrases that Lane uses when discussing the leaks and leakers:


"oozing slime"

"Cassius and Brutus inside the court, creeping up behind the chief justice with their verbal daggers"

"shame on the treacherous insiders"

And here's how Lane talks about Jan Crawford, the reporter who published the leaks,

"a fine journalist"

"kudos to Jan Crawford for a nifty little scoop"

According to Lane, Crawford's story damages the Supreme Court and misleads the reader, but the responsibility is apportioned so that all of the blame falls on the sources for passing the story on to the reporter. He even goes further and praises the reporter for passing the story on to us.

I suppose it might be possible to come up with a situation where two parties knowingly work together to produce something bad for society and yet one party shoulders all of the blame while the other is praiseworthy but Lane is no where near making that case here, nor does he seem to realize that he needs to.


  1. It is rather an odd double standard. It would be like saying it is wrong to sell cigarettes to children but it is fine to smoke them.

    The other issue here is that the decision to pass on information from an anonymous source is always tough. In a lot of cases sources will have agendas and not wanting to be named makes it impossible to clirify what that agenda might be.

    But we see none of that nuance in the story.

  2. It's an odd double standard but it's not unusual. Check out almost any media criticism and you'll kind similarly tortured ethical reasoning.