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Ethics amid the media frenzy

One of the sly conceits of columns like this is to participate in the media frenzy of the moment by decrying it.

That admission is required because this column is about Michael Jackson -- or, more defensibly, about the way in which new forms of journalism deployed to cover sensational stories involving celebrities may challenge some of the mainstream media’s hardest-won ethical norms.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 05, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Jackson -- In Calendar on Nov. 26, the Regarding Media column erroneously attributed an article about the Michael Jackson case that had appeared in the Daily Telegraph of Sydney to the Daily Telegraph of London. The two papers are not related. The article in the Sydney paper named Jackson’s alleged victim, ran a photo of the boy with Jackson and purported to recount an incriminating disclosure the boy made to his therapist. The Sydney newspaper’s story, which carried a London dateline, originally appeared in the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper.

Physician and author Oliver Sacks once remarked that ours is an age marked by a general increase in information and a general decrease in understanding. Up to our necks in facts, we find it harder and harder to link them in a way that signifies something worth knowing.

The Internet, which has turned every modem-equipped home computer into the informational equivalent of a dump truck, has exacerbated the problem. Nowadays, when a celebrity like Jackson becomes the focus of one of these situations, the information superhighway is transformed into a kind of giant conveyor belt, dumping a toxic slurry of undifferentiated fact, speculation, rumor and malicious gossip onto a media event that more closely resembles a sump than it does a story.

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The challenge arises because the mainstream media also may know the genuine facts deposited in the sump by dubious sources, but may decline to publish them for ethical reasons or simply out of consideration for good taste. The question that now regularly arises in the minds of serious editors and producers is this: Does withholding information that our readers and viewers can readily obtain from other sources threaten, over time, to abrade our connection with them? Or, does the maintenance of clearly defined standards -- even in the face of breathless opportunism masquerading as enterprise -- strengthen the bond with our audience?

For example, among the most widely accepted ethical norms elaborated in American journalism over the last two decades are the prohibitions against publishing the names of alleged victims in sexual assault cases or the identities of children involved in criminal prosecutions.

The former was challenged not long ago, when the name and photograph of the young woman who has accused Laker star Kobe Bryant of assault became widely available on the Internet. On Monday, both strictures were violated in a striking way, when the Daily Telegraph in London published a detailed and seemingly damning story concerning the child molestation allegations against Jackson.

The story by the Telegraph’s Caroline Graham and Sharon Churcher named the alleged victim, who reportedly has told a therapist and police that the pop star abused him, and the child’s mother, who has custody. The story is illustrated by a photograph of the 12-year-old and Jackson together. Citing unnamed sources, the British reporters also claimed that the search of Jackson’s ranch produced incriminating evidence, including “explicit letters and poems” and videotapes. Quoting “a source close to the investigation,” the story purports to recount a particularly incriminating disclosure that the boy is alleged to have made to his therapist. The story also contains heretofore unreported allegations against Jackson attributed to the boy’s mother. And, just to round things off, there’s a recitation of what Graham and Churcher call “speculation” that the singer’s $3-million bail was raised by Al Malnik, who was once mobster Meyer Lansky’s lawyer.

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Go figure.

The very establishment Telegraph is a reputable newspaper, but it should be noted that if Jackson’s alleged crime had occurred in London or Manchester, the paper would have been forbidden under British law to publish any of these things. Children in Los Angeles and criminal proceedings in Santa Barbara, however, apparently are fair game.

Shortly after the Telegraph posted this story to its online edition, Matt Drudge, the American Internet gossip-monger, provided a convenient link though his popular U.S. Web site.

So, given the internationalization of such stories and the speed by which they can be cybernetically laundered into the media mix, do the mainstream news organizations’ laboriously worked-out ethical norms really avail any longer? Do they still serve some purpose, or has technological change simply overrun them, degrading practices, like withholding the boy’s name, from ethics to eccentricities?

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“It’s certainly true that the old system of media discretion, based on the judgments of elite gatekeepers, like newspaper editors, is breaking down,” said Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “The Internet has amplified the mass in mass media and made it much more populist. We no longer have as many obvious gateways of decorum through which public enters the world of news. To my mind, our newfound pluralism has opened too many doors. It is a kind of a pity that so much of our coverage has become this shameless.”

Jane E. Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, sees both benefits and costs in this Internet-based pluralism. As a lawyer frequently involved in 1st Amendment cases, she said: “I like it because the sheer number of new information avenues makes it very hard for judges nowadays to interfere with the publication of news. From an ethics perspective, though, I don’t like it, if the bottom line is that competition reduces all of us in the serious media to the lowest common denominator.

“In the face of the borderless Internet, all these journalistic norms have far less meaning than they once did. But do we really want a mass media that allows its lowest common denominators to become the arbiters of both news and ethics?”

To a certain extent, according to Schell, that has already happened. “Unfortunately, people like Drudge have a place these days. He’s like a synapse firing into a vast nervous system with no major or minor pathways, just a welter of energy pumping in every direction. If Drudge hadn’t linked to the Daily Telegraph’s story, it would have gotten out in the U.S. some other way. He’s just an iconic roundhouse for the dissemination of the scurrilous.”

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Does that inevitable dissemination make the serious mainstream media’s refusal to go along simply irrelevant?

No, according to Kirtley: “Shakespeare had it right -- ‘To thine own self be true.’ Any serious news organization can justify any thoughtful decision, so long as it explains it forthrightly to its readers.”

For Schell, the “key to answering this question is to ask yourself what is gained by knowing these things? For example, who the hell needs to know this boy’s name? I think the serious media can say we’re not going to reveal his name because it’s uncivil to do so. People are crying out -- albeit it in a still muffled way -- for a news media that operates on the basis of principle, even if it sometimes seems like a mere formality.”


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