Anyone who knows me would tell you that no one respects journalists more than I do. Honorable, reputable journalists do a tremendous service for their readers. Either by exposing wrongdoing or profiling a celebrity, product, business or service that people are interested in knowing more about. Over the last 15 years I have made it a point to study how journalists work online and in social media. First with Steve Ross, formerly with The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and more recently with The Society of New Communications Research. My thought has always been that if I can better understand how to communicate with journalists, I would be doing both them and my clients a real service.
But over the course of my career I have encountered journalists who are not honest or honorable. While those who worked for News of the World are in a league of their own, it is time that some of the worst journalistic practices be exposed. For now, I will leave alone the misrepresentation of facts, plagiarism, laziness and outright lying to others. Instead I’ll refer to the more annoying practices that go on every day.
At the top of my list is when journalists have an agenda or story angle they want to pursue yet are not honest or candid about it. Recently, a company I know was approached by the most important trade journal in its industry. The journalist called to say she wanted to write a profile on the firm to highlight the major anniversary of an acquisition the firm made a few years back. The firm granted her multiple interviews and access to senior executives. The vast majority of her questions were about the anniversary. But when the story came out, she trashed the company and its acquisition strategy. The company was dumbfounded and devastated.
Another lovely practice is when journalists seek what they call “balance” in their stories. In order to present both sides, a journalist might interview 10 sources. Nine could say the most complimentary things, while one doesn’t. So what does the journalist do? Quote only one of the nine positive sources alongside the single negative source. The journalist makes it appear that there is equal disagreement about an issue when, in fact, the experts are overwhelmingly supportive of one side or the other. Controversy is created when none really exists.
So who polices these dishonest journalists? It is left to their employers–the editors or publishers who may well be pushing the journalists to “get the story.” Their stories, no matter how they get them.
The overwhelming number of journalists I have had the pleasure to work with in my career are terrific, highly talented people. But, like any profession, there are some who will use underhanded methods to create a story of their choosing, no matter how wrong or hurtful. It is time that those journalists are exposed and relieved of duty.