Does The News Media Have A Moral Responsibility?

Much has been said in recent years about the increasingly irresponsible news media. For those of us who remember Walter Cronkite, we are amazed by the sleazy depths to which our news media can go nowadays. Their present fascination with Anna Nichole Smith’s death perfectly illustrates those depths.

It is commonly speculated that the drive for increasing profits by the corporate owners of the news outlets, along with fierce and unanticipated competition from the cable channels and Internet blogs have motivated a new focus upon the lurid. I might add the media consultants who insist that appealing to the lowest common denominator, not hard news, brings and keeps viewers or readers. In spite of ourselves, we are especially fascinated by the downfalls and humiliations of our anointed celebrities.

But my concern is not over this sleaziness. After all, we can still find, if we search, a few outlets that do focus upon the important world and local news. A deeper and more insidious issue is the honesty of our journalists. I believe that most people go into journalism because they have an ideal of finding and sharing the truth about the people and issues that form our society. But, like most politicians, they gradually become distracted and compromised by the pressures to be profitable, to attract and hold viewers/readers, to lead with stories, to reinforce a political or social perspective, and to add a spin more interesting and attractive than the competitors on the other channels.

And sometimes those pressures force a bending or complete loss of the truth. While I understand that most news outlets have an expressed, or more often unexpressed, political leaning, there remains the moral responsibility to be truthful. But what is truth in the context of reporting on events and people? Is it still being honest if we emphasize those aspects of the story that reinforce our viewpoint while de-emphasizing or ignoring those that don’t? Are we serving our viewers and readers if we consistently vilify those in the opposing party while blindly praising and ignoring the faults of those in ours? Or is that just being disingenuous? Should the news media be held accountable, as are the rest of us, when they libel or slander?

Sure, occasionally a supermarket tabloid will lose a slander lawsuit, but seldom do the major newspapers or news channels face such sanctions. When the news media are criticized for their dishonesty, hypocrisy or bias, they cry freedom of speech and partisanship and few want to take them on. They have become relatively above reproach, compared to any other group.

And yet no other segment of our society can so dramatically influence public opinion and political dealings. The news media no longer just report on events, they form and even create the events. They can make or break political candidates, drive legislation, manipulate the economy into and out of recessions, and even alter foreign policy. They have become a crucial element of our society largely above reproach.

While there is a very real danger in interfering with the news media’s ability to report and go wherever they need to go, they should be more aggressively held accountable when they are deliberately untruthful or manipulative. While our political leaders won’t likely have the courage or will to take on the press, perhaps the relatively loose and free Internet will do more to expose dishonesty wherever and whenever it occurs.

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