THE ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS RAISED BY A MEDIA STORY
Media has become an important channel for public awareness and political picture of the world. As a result, the media agenda become an element which the preventatives of the western democracy seeks to control. Even with the long public service media history, government has never given up the attempt to influence/manage the media agenda, and also did not stop the practice of manipulating the media. This has been evident in the United States and other developed democracies. In particular, as the relationship between the government and media has become increasingly prominent in public relations for decades, the degree of government involvement and manipulation of the media increased (Kiousis and McCombs, 2004). This has been evident in most administrations in the United States. It seems that there are huge imbalances between the government with its political power and the media whose goal of monitoring the government has become increasingly difficult to achieve (Uscinski, 2009). This reality has raised the question of media ethic and the extent to which the present media and media personalities are operating ethically. This paper discusses this argument in the light of a media article published in Vanity Fair in October 2012 by Michael Lewis.
In NY Times, June 30, 2010 issue David Brooks commented, “It is true that when you interview people you do develop relationships, and there is some pressure not to burn the people you admire and rely on” (cited in Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012). This is the same opinion held by Jeremy W. Peters in a New York Times, July 15, 2012 issue. He suggested that “From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position. Those officials who dare to speak out of school, but fearful of making the slightest off-message remark, shroud even the most innocuous and anodyne quotations in anonymity by insisting they be referred to as a ‘top Democrat’ or a ‘Republican strategist’” (cited Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012). This has been the norm of media reporting in the contemporary society. This raises the question of the responsibility of the media to the public or rather the ethical responsibility of the media. Media generally has a social responsibility. However, the two quotes in this introduction raise the question of ethical reporting by the media reporters who have the responsibility of acting as watchdogs for the members of the public.
Lewis is said to have made a drastic appeal to the White House that he argues to have been sire would be denied. He wanted to publish an article Vanity Fair concerning the president of the United States that would put the audience in the shoes of the president. This required the reporter to have inside access into the White House. He wanted to simply hang around with the president to be able to access that mind of information. He intended for the process to be free-flowing; he wanted to engage in such activities like playing basketball with the president. He wanted to be with him in the golf field, attend meetings with him and just being around the president like no other reporter has been able to do in the past. He was surprised when his request was granted by the White House and the president was prepared to engage with him (Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012).
Over the following six months, the reporter was allowed to accompany the president on Air Force One and had conversations with him regarding the surprises, challenges, and decision making processes which came with the responsibility of being a president and the commander-in-chief. The article which he published following the encounter with the president went into details of how he was able to strike a balance between the aspect of public relations related to his work with the never-ending string of decisions that are required, and the way the president is powerful and powerless, at the same time. In the article, it was suggested by the reporter that the presidency has the god-like powers particularly concerning the foreign affairs. This means that it is required for the president to have so much power in some occasions and in other occasions, particularly those concerning domestic affairs, he is powerless. The article revealed the disconnection between his powerfulness and his powerlessness as being particularly striking (Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012).
In the efforts to come up with an interesting and informative article, Lewis intended to set up an extremely natural environment in order for him to observe the president without much concern about the way the final print will look like. There was therefore an agreement of not making it obvious that he was searching for information for the article. This was the basis for the agreement to allow the white House to censor conversations between the reporter and the president. Therefore, the conversations were sent to the White House for editing before they could come out in print (Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012).
The article, titled, “Obama’s Way,” has attracted a lot of attention from the public and other media for getting access to information from and relating to the United States President, Barrack Obama. Lewis is argued to have been given extensive access to the president for information on the article. This is interestingly rare in the country and any Journalist would “sell his soul” to get such information. Considering the timing of the article, very close to the general elections in the country, it would be so hard for a journalist to be granted access to such information as published by Lewis. The article published by Lewis touched a lot on leadership. Given the argument that the author got access to the president for the information, this article can be argued to be of much interest to the members of the public (Lewis, 2012).
Lewis reveals that there were pre-conditions for access to the information, for his article, from the White House. Lewis also admitted that the White House had to approve each quote that was to form the content of the article. This is simply saying that there was quote approval required by the reporter from the White House. He replied to Peters question on whether or not there were some quotes that were left out of the article that it was true there were some things that were left out. However, he claimed that the information that was left out did not have much relevance to the article, such information as a conversation between the president and his political strategists regarding the electoral strategy in Florida. However, the reporter claimed, in the interview with Peters, that there was one specific interesting conversation with the president that he wished he could have gotten the chance to explain in details (Lewis, 2012).
This article has continued to raise significant questions regarding sourcing for the media stories and articles. This article is interesting for this discussion as an ethical issue related to letting the White House to endorse quotations. The reporter has been clearly revealed to surrender some of his own independence as a journalist for the sake of acquiring information from the White House. It is suggested that the only way he would gain access to the important information is by allowing the White House to have its way (Lewis, 2012).
In the same issue New York Times July 15, 2012 quoted in the introduction, Jeremy W. Peters wrote in an article titled, “Latest Word on the Trail? I Take it Back”:
“[The White House] press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name . . . .Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review. . . . Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations” (cited in Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012).
In media, there is need to quote correctly, but that is completely opposed to letting sources to do away with some important remarks. This is the question of allowing the sources to delete what is considered confidential or controversial and should not be fed to the public. In a democratic society, this is source of great debate in as far as the media is concerned. The media has always fought for this practice to be eradicated in the democratic society. This shows a kind of control by the influential sources of news. News control and censorship are precisely what is meant by then terms. This problem seems to have led to an ethical question of the media being cozy with the sources of the news for the sake of getting juicy stories. This is argued to not only being unethical, but also being against the principle of an open society or a free press (Kiousis and McCombs, 2004).
This goes back to the story of the gatherers of news stories such as Michael Lewis, who gather information by being cozy with the potential sources of juicy stories like the public officials and politicians. It is evident that the public officials and the politicians make use of the media and the reporters to get to the people the information they want out there. This causes them to edit all the information or quotes that might harm them incase they circulate (Briggs and Burke, 2010).
In the case where the information is not edited, the reporters are made by the reporters to use anonymous sources. This is another ethical issue that has emerged in the article in the Vanity Fair written by Michael Lewis. The question arises on whether it was necessary for Lewis to hide the names or identities of the persons commenting on the behavior of the Head of State in a meeting on Libya held on March 15, 2011. The use of descriptions like “one of the participants at the meeting,” “says one participant,” “says another person at the meeting,” “says one witness,” and “recalls one eyewitness” has come out to criticize the ethical behavior of the media in covering news related to public officials (cited in Schwarz, Weiss and Whiton, 2012). These questions arises given the argument that what was being covered by the reporter was not top security matter or the personal views of the Head of State, but responses by the public regarding the behavior of the Head of State. The ‘principals’ attending the meeting had already been revealed by the reporter. It would be interesting and of public importance for the people commenting on the behavior of the president to be revealed on the story. An additional issue is that the reporter fails to reveal whether or not he attended the entire meeting, which would be important for the people to be told as the meeting was an interesting part of an ongoing foreign policy issue (Briggs and Burke, 2010).
By the use of unidentified sources and allowing the White House to censor the information, the article suggests that anonymous sources most of the time give information for their self interest. These kinds of sources provide the opportunity for the journalist and the editor to get sources that agree with their points of view. In this case, the reporters and the sources develop a complicit relationship in which the truth most of the time take a back seat in favor of convenience. While the sources let out their views to the public, in exchange to the scoop, the reporters report them in the manner that is in the interest of the sources. Therefore the public officials make use of the reporters to convey significant information to the public in a manner that suits them best (Briggs and Burke, 2010).
It is an ethical practice for the journalists to write news stories without identifying their sources in the event that the source does not want to be identified. However, in this case, the story is written without quotations. There are exceptions which emerge in case identification of the source will put a life in danger. This also happens in the case of whistle blowing and when there is need for national security. Therefore, it is unethical when the journalists are out to protect personal interests (Fourie, 2008).
Media empowerment has become an indicator of real democracy and a means to enlighten the society. The media is expected to act as a watchdog for the society or as an eye for the society in the affairs and the leadership of the community. This means that the media has a responsibility, which is to provide guidance to the youth and the society in general, as well as to provide objective information to the people, particularly on matters of public interest (Fourie, 2008). The media has a responsibility in ensuring that what the leaders are doing is reported to the people as a way of making them accountable. In a society where the media has a responsibility to the people, there will be transparency and integrity in leadership. However, this has not been the case. People have developed a blind faith in the media and thus held the belief that what is conveyed in it is correct. This has led to the people being misled by the very channel that is meant to be showing them the way. The contemporary media is failing the very people that have had a great faith in it. It is a fact to argue that the media is becoming oblivious to its responsibility to the society (Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1948).
It emerges that the media is deviating from the ethics and principles on which it is established. The media has the responsibility of revealing the truth objectively and ethically. On the contrary, currently the media sensationalizes news items and protects the interests of the sources of juicy stories. It concentrates on providing details that are not factual, or worse still details that are manufactured. In the competitive world, also the media is in the business of selling to make profit. However, it has become impossible for the public to know where to draw the line or where the limit is (Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1948).
This paper has discussed and evaluated the question of media ethics in the light of a media article published in Vanity Fair in October 2012 by Michael Lewis. It has emerged that rather than being ‘with’ and ‘for’ the public the media has become distant. Currently, the media personalities concentrate on the big grand stories. It has become very important that the reporters get these stories (Briggs and Burke, 2010). They are willing to be bought by the public officials only to be able to air what these officials want aired. This means leaving out what would be of real significance and interest to the public.
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