Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Journalism Ethics

I have a friend who works as a copy editor for the Detroit News. Given all the shakeup the last few weeks at the News and the industry as a whole, we've had a number of conversations about the future of the newspaper business, and how the papers can change to make themselves viable in the digital age.The conclusion that both of have come to is that the online versions of the newspapers need to be more like the most popular blogs, willing to link to stuff from other sites, and producing content and analysis several times a day.

But the holdup, from his perspective has been that the management at the paper is holding on to the ideal of a "Journalistic Integrity" that sets the newspaper industry above the blogs, recruiting websites, and other online media. In their minds, the popularity of the traditional media comes from the trust of the public knowing that news is gathered the "right way". For that reason, many in the mainstream media look down on the blogging community. They look at the new media as undercutting the traditional business model.

There is some truth to that view. Certainly the newspaper looses a lot of effectiveness when the "current" information it is telling us is out of date by the time it is printed because it has been posted hours earlier. And there are certainly many blogs out there (this one included) that offer opinions and "analysis" that does not come with the same amount of research and verified sources as a traditional newspaper column.

But what the newspaper management fails to see is that the pleas to journalism ethics or the credibility of the traditional media vis-a-vee the blogs goes out the window when you employ columnists whose sole reason for writing certain things is to sell papers.

Take the recent dustup with Detroit News columnist Rob Parker and Lions head coach Rod Marinelli. At the end of a string of questions where Parker was trying to get Marinelli to say anything that wasn't a cliche about the abysmal Lions defense and the DC, Jon Barry, who is Marinelli's son-in-law, Parker asked Marinelli if he wished his daughter had married a better defensive coordinator. Now at 0-15, Marinelli deserves all the criticism he gets. Barry, who was the only one interviewed two years ago, and has presided over two of the worst defenses in NFL history, deserves all the criticism he gets. And it is fair to question Marinelli about nepotism when the only appearant qualification of his DC is his relationship to the head coach. But clearly Parker's comment went over the line, and he should be reprimanded or suspended. Criticize the coach, leave the family out of it.

What I think this illustrates, and the reason I bring this issue up today, is the hypocrisy of the print media, the thing that my friend has been banging his head against. On one hand, the newspaper elite claim superiority over the non-traditional media because of journalistic ethics. Yet, on the other hand, they employ hacks like Parker, who don't have a problem violating those ethics, or at least skirting them, to sell more papers or create more traffic at the newspaper websites. We've seen it time and time again when it comes to the treatment of Rich Rodriguez and coverage of the team over the last year. We see it almost every major media market, where each paper has at least one sports columnist whose job it is to increase readership by writing stuff that is so outrageous that it pisses everyone off.

The bottom line, in my mind, is that the best sports blogs are successful because of their outstanding writing, excellent analysis, and humerous takes on the world of sports. Until the newspaper industry realizes that there is no tenure anymore, that the best player will play regardless of class, and that they will only be successful if they employ excellent writers and commentaters who can provide real analysis on a consistent basis irregardless of what their degree or background, they will continue on their path towards the scrapheap of history.