People’s Daily analyzes U.S. journalism

Many thanks to SPJ Ethics Committee chair Andy Schotz for bringing this to my attention.

In today’s online edition of People’s Daily a fellow from the Institute for Analytic Journalism has a piece that has me quivering so much it will take a while to write something up that doesn’t sound like a Glen Beck routine.

So let’s get some comments on this.

How a free press can shackle the public

Many of the approximately 800 out-of-town journalists in Beijing to cover the CPPCC and NPC come from Western countries. Particularly those from the U.S., carry a sense that the relative freedom of the press they enjoy back home contributes to better reporting. Putting aside the fact that the American government does restrict the press sometimes by, for example, prohibiting photos of caskets or embedding journalists with the military during the early stages of the Iraq War, the conclusion that “freer is better” may not necessarily be so.

There’s an assumption in America that freedom of the press is always a good thing. It’s enshrined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. The amendment prohibits Congress from making laws infringing on freedom of the press. In “Lovell v. City of Griffin,” 303 U.S. 444 (1938), Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes defined the press as, “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.”

The rationale for having an unfettered press is that it promotes the public’s right to access information. The U.S.-based Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics asserts that: “The public’s right to know of events of public importance and interest is the overriding mission of the mass media.”

Rest of article.

A few highlights from deeper in the piece:

  • Specifically, does America’s free press promote truth?Increasingly, the answer is no.
  • U.S. reporters are so mesmerized by an incident like the Watergate Scandal, that they believe even common stories warrant the type of secrecy accorded Deep Throat. What happens instead is that the public is left to “trust the reporter” without any way to judge the expertise of the source or the extent to which she may have been trying to manipulate the press.
  • Necessity to compete for news with many sources, including the Internet, leading to inadequate fact checking, sensationalization, and the spread of rumors
  • Necessity to compete for news with many sources, including the Internet, leading to inadequate fact checking, sensationalization, and the spread of rumors…
  • Newsrooms rarely have the time or interest to do much fact checking beyond the story they are handed.
  • To be sure, not all of the problems I’ve enumerated are peculiar to a free press. However, before the contingent of American journalists heads home, perhaps they will reflect about how to get their own house in order, rather than insisting on fixing China’s.

Few in our business can disagree with the faults and problems of American journalism. That said, however, to state that until we reach a point of Utopian journalism we are not allowed to criticize dictatorships — such as China — that brutally repress journalists is absurd. Nor do our faults prevent us from pointing out that state-run, controlled and censored media operations (such as in China and Iran) are not in the best interests of the people of those countries.

More later.

Cross posted with the SPJ International Journalism Committee site: Journalism and the World

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