Ethics in Journalism: a Perspective from Marvin Olasky
The scope of this article concerns an update for the book Prodigal Press by Marvin Olasky. It is written from Olasky’s perspective. Thus the opinions expressed below may or may not align with those of the Editor to The Jaded Observer. It will focus on a modern interpretation and analysis of what Olasky wrote and predicted in his 1988 work. This paper will specifically update the content in chapter five, and will cover the idea of ethics in media.
Ethics in Journalism
Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines the term ‘libel’ as “[…] a statement or representation published without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt”
In the mainstream media today, the issue of media bias is both unbridled and unchecked. In the summer of 2019, Nicholas Sandmann, a high school student protesting against abortion, was made victim of multi-billion-dollar media giants deciding what justice is, and calling for, among other things, his death.
Journalistic ethics is a concept that has its history based in Christian roots. The New York Times was originally bound by what moral men deemed good. News was told from a relatively unbiased position, with some bias towards Christian morality. An opponent would argue that this bias is the same as now, but this is folly. First, the media then did not call judgement upon children. Second, and more importantly, the media was at that point focused on reporting news events and not a personal take on said events. John Hersey said in 1980 that “since perfect objectivity in reporting what the eyes have seen and the ears have heard is impossible, there is no choice but to go all the way over to absolute subjectivity.” Hersey argued that such a view “soon makes the reporter the center of interest rather than the real world he is supposed to be picturing or interpreting.”
This statement holds to be doubly true forty years later, in the aftermath of the Nick Sandmann incident. In order to understand the parallels, it is important to understand what happened to Nick Sandmann.
After an altercation with paid, professional protesters, he was wrongly blamed for instigating a confrontation and wrongfully libeled. His crime: smiling in the face of opposition. The result of this Christian behavior was a crucifixion on almost every mainstream journalism website and paper. Liberal leaning journalists especially resorted to warmongering on twitter, some calling for violence against him, and others commenting in support of death threats against him.
This incident is indicative of a deeper issue in mainstream journalism: overentitled journalists. Keeping in mind that Sandmann was a minor at the time of the incident, the journalists involved, and their respective editors should be prosecuted for endangering a minor and inciting violence against a minor. Instead, they were championed as heralds of justice.
As Hersey predicted, the shift in journalism from objectivity to subjectivity allowed for journalists to become opinion-centered concerning what they wrote. It takes a tremendous amount of arrogance to use your position as a journalist to dispense what you think of as justice upon those you deem to be wrong. For the journalists, their status as the producers of information allowed them to vocalize their prejudice on social media, inciting hatred, death threats, and defamation. In a fortunate ending, Sandmann did win a court case for significant compensation, but the attitudes of journalists can’t be ruled away. Their sentiments, their power complexes, and their air of superiority are symptoms of a more dangerous illness eating away at the journalistic machine in America.
Unlike the fiction, Sandmann’s story is far more upsetting to a critical thinker. As Olasky says, the exception that general incompetence is allowed but frowned upon. Since this allowance is made, libel is much easier to get away with, i.e., lying about intentionality. The issue of “Jimmy’s World” in 1981 was the beginning of a trend where truth is killed in the name of relativity. In the face of opposition, The Washington Post ignored calls to action and calls for honesty when their own reporter blatantly lied and stole a Pulitzer for their forgery. Today, the entire notion of honesty is bygone, as anything that goes contrary to mainstream narratives can be dismissed as either ‘right-wing or left-wing conspiracy’ or ‘fake news.’ The entire meaning of the word conspiracy has been undone and perverted from “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.” Into “A generally unsubstantiated claim – generally based on what is called an argument from ignorance, linking completely unrelated things, etc – that is usually considered to be against the well-being of the demographic of the conspiracy theorist.”
Journalists have slowly accumulated more power over what the public deems to be truth. Liberalism and the death of objectivity has progressed to the point that different news sources can tell dramatically different or even contrary stories. If a paper had been found guilty of falsifying information a century ago, they would have suffered incredible penalties. This encouraged honesty and significant efforts on the part of chief editors to keep up with their papers. Today, a simple revision or apology statement makes all the consequences go away. Since there is no absolute truth, there is no journalistic standard.
Furthermore, the impact of sensationalism continues today, where journalists capitalize on sad or upsetting stories for the readership without sympathizing with events. The death of Princess Diana was a tragic event that was used by the media to publish more copies than ever before. Rather than mourn the death of a prominent figure, publishers focused on the intrigue, the shock, and the gore.
According to Harvard Business Review, “Piggybacking on big events has allowed certain media companies to grow over time. Fox News, for instance, entered the seemingly mature cable market in 1996 and experienced notable upticks in viewers after “big news” events — the 2000 election, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the start of the war in Iraq. When an event drew viewers to cable news in general, Fox’s ratings grew along with the other networks. But more of the viewers who tuned into Fox stayed with it after the event had passed when they realized the network’s coverage was different.”
Furthermore, the constant diet of sensational news has resulted in a conditioned reader base who craves more sensation and less dialectical analysis. The conditioning of readers means that the cycle of dumbed down news and dumbed down readers will continue until journalism is altogether unnecessary, readers become too dumb to understand, or both.
This manifests itself in clickbait journalism like Buzzfeed, who has taken Pulitzer’s sensationalism to a new level, making a science out of hooking readers from the headline, cashing in on advertisement money, and sending them on their way to a new article. In Olasky’s opinion, Buzzfeed could be used to represent the death of journalism altogether.
What is ethics? To the contemporary, ethics means nothing. Secular journalists generally have reason for integrity. They are consumed with either spinning facts to fit a prescribed political agenda, focusing their writing on big events to garner attention, generating money with as little effort as possible, or even bald-faced lying in order to prove a point. More importantly, the relative idea of truth means that ethics has become completely relative to many Secular journalists. Most concerning is the god-complex that journalists tend to have on social media today. The case of Sandmann is an example of the media run awry. Without intervention, this cycle will likely continue until truth has become a figment of rational man’s imagination. May God help us all.