Hacking Scandal Returns: Should Journos Care?

The NewsCorp phone-hacking scandal is generating new headlines, with allegations that CEO James Murdoch knew more than he testified last month. Does the controversy have wider implications for journalists?

Many journalists may simply shrug when hearing the latest allegations involving Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World.

The excuses may vary: It was just one of those sensationalistic British tabloids. It wasn’t even in our country. It had no ethical standards like we do.

The allegations are indeed shocking and include the hacking of a missing 13-year-old girl’s phone messages as well as phones of parents of murdered children and relatives of dead soldiers. Other allegations range from bribery of law enforcement to the use of private investigators who were convicted criminals.

However, the allegations continue to affect legitimate journalists worldwide, for two primary reasons:

1. Public perception. To the public, the News of the World was part of the media. A recent poll for ITV News at Ten in Great Britain showed 80 percent of respondents no longer trust the media because of the scandal. That compares to a 2010 Gallup poll that showed 57 percent of respondents in the United States “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”

2. Questioning of our ethical practices. Did the News of the World cross boundaries that traditional journalists would never cross?

“Every journalist, not only those working for the tabloids, is called upon to take risks in the pursuit of truth — usually within agreed-upon limits. And it is true that, to a remarkable degree, even the most egregious news outlets adhere to those limits,” Ryan Linkof, a lecturer in history at the University of Southern California whose doctoral dissertation was on the origins of tabloid photojournalism in Britain, wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times.

“The tabloids may be sneakier and more persistent than more respected news sources, but this is a matter of degree, not kind.”

The “matter of degree” has been blurring for years, as noted by the growing number of instances worldwide in which traditional media have crossed the lines.

One example came after the Oklahoma City bombing in which a local TV station hired a private investigator to look into an Iraqi refugee as the possible “John Doe 2.” The restaurant worker claimed later that he was subjected to “unbelievable harassment” from the station and was beaten and spat upon because of the reports. He was never arrested or charged.

Murdoch, whose media empire included News of the World, even noted during a recent parliamentarian hearing: “I think all news organizations have used private detectives and do so in their investigations from time to time, I don't think illegally.”

Other instances have occurred, too, in which journalists have dressed up in uniforms or used their celebrity to get gain access to areas in which other media have been barred by authorities. Some are even ludicrous, such as the journalist who dressed up in a brown dress and carried apple crisp in an effort to cross police lines in her coverage of the massacre of Amish schoolgirls in Nickels Mine, PA.

Even if the lack of access was questionable, the deceptions to cross boundaries can be found in the coverage of almost any disaster or massacre worldwide and erode public perception even further.

“So long as sensation and intrusion continue to sell newspapers, journalists will remain under pressure to produce material to meet demand,” researchers Eileen Berrington and Ann Jemphrey wrote in “Pressures on the Press: Reflections on reporting tragedy,” a 2003 study that explored journalists covering the massacre at Dunblane Primary School, Scotland, in 1996. “They were driven by commercial imperatives to produce copy, a pressure that at times overrode ethical considerations and sensitivity.”

As Linkof asserts, tabloids may have a place in this world, especially as long people buy them or, most importantly, advertise in them. However, the tabloid newspapers and TV shows are also putting more pressure on legitimate media to become sensationalistic even beyond the coverage of a mass tragedy or questionable acts of public officials. It now includes everyday coverage of murder victims and missing children that tends to inflict more harm on grieving relatives.

So while journalists can deny that they don’t have any ties to what transpired at News of the World, the links are inevitable and should cause us to consider what boundaries we will cross to get a story.

Those certainly should not be ones that will further afflict the most innocent in our communities.

An earlier version of this column was written originally for Higher Standards, an online publication for News and Information Center staff members at The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com.