By: Craig A. Newman
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, including recent criminal charges against former News of the World editors and reporters, 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. The resulting prolonged existential crisis has created an unprecedented amount of competition in an unfamiliar landscape. News organizations are not just racing to beat traditional competitors, they are up against competition that is bound by no professional code of ethics.
At the same time that newspapers are facing shrinking budgets, their reporters are being asked to do more. Journalists are expected to be one-man bands: producing video, blogging, and tweeting as they go about their craft. Fewer people doing harder work for less money is not a recipe for ethical advances.
The phone-hacking scandal may be shocking and is certainly big news, but the notion that such egregious behavior should come to pass in today’s media world should surprise no one.
While previous news scandals involving checkbook journalism (the practice of paying sources), hidden cameras, and ambush interview tactics have each inspired rounds of professional hand-wringing and outrage, phone hacking is different. It calls into question not only contemporary news-gathering tactics, but the very integrity of mainstream journalism.
And with that, all news organizations are tainted. The controversy has the power to reshape public perception of journalism in the same way Watergate affected our view of politics, or Enron affected our trust in public accounting.
That’s not to say such blatantly illegal or unethical practices as phone hacking are widespread. But all news media are forced to cut corners and make compromises now in ways that were unfathomable in analog days. The ethical complexities to competing in a new and rapidly evolving media world, while maintaining trust and creditability, are a deep challenge. But demonstrating traditional controls and checks that align with the realities of the nonstop reporting cycle are now essential more than ever if major news organizations hope to stand out in the digital ether. If they can, it may prove their financial salvation as well.
Craig A. Newman is a litigation partner at Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP in New York. A former journalist, he also serves as chief executive officer of the Freedom2Connect Foundation in Washington, D.C.