Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The World of the News: A Cautionary Tale for 21st Century Journalism

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The World of the News: A Cautionary Tale for 21st Century Journalism

Article excerpt

With the breakup of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the effects of the British phone-hacking scandal have officially reached U.S. shores. As the lurid drama has played out in London, the U.S. journalism establishment has largely shrugged off the sins of its British counterparts, filing phone hacking under a long list of rough-and-tumble Fleet Street tactics. And while the widening scandal presents another challenge to Murdoch's empire, a far more lasting impact may be as a cautionary tale in a viciously battered news business.

Allegations that a major news organization invaded private voice mail accounts are astounding by any measure, but for many reasons, a scandal of this sort was all but inevitable, and not just in Britain. The News Corp. debacle graphically illustrates the risks that have been quietly mounting for decades.

Every crime needs a means and a motive, and the evolution of news media since the advent of the Internet has provided both.

The means are digital. Advances in technology have changed the newsgathering process in unforeseen ways. Vast quantities of data are now available at the click of a mouse. Reporters and editors have growing access to high-tech surveillance equipment and data-sharing technologies. While these resources have greatly increased the scope and speed of reporting, they each present new opportunities for abuse.

These same advances are also responsible for the decentralization of news operations. Today's virtual newsrooms are frequently an archipelago of remote workers, freelancers, and semi-professionals. News outlets increasingly blend in third-party content aggregated from nontraditional sources, including blogs and social media. With each step further from the newsroom, the editorial controls and safeguards that have traditionally defined journalism are blurred, strained, or dropped altogether. The news business has always been subject to the full range of human flaws and ethical breakdowns. The difference is that today's evolved newsroom more often facilitates ethical breakdowns rather than serving to prevent them.

The motive is survival. Online distribution ravaged what had been a mostly stable and profitable business model for more than a century. The proliferation of free content has undermined the economic foundation of the industry, and news organizations are struggling to find a solution. …

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