Downward spiral

Many journalists say media’s duties, ethics are sliding in order to conform to the company’s bottom line

By Michael Stoll and John McManus
Reproduced with permission, Quill magazine, April 2005
Posted April 13, 2005

Reporter Greg Lyon hardly fits the profile of a disgruntled employee. He stayed loyal to San Francisco’s KRON-TV for 27 years, becoming one of the Bay Area’s most respected journalists. But he resigned early this year with no plans to retire or a new job lined up.

Why?

Like a growing number of journalists, Lyon no longer believes he has the opportunity to do good work in a company obsessed with trimming costs. Pleading poverty last year, the station replaced half its editors with digital video workstations. Reporters were expected to do two or three stories a day instead of one. Easy-to-report crime stories predominated. And consultants’ insistence on live, on-the-scene shots meant replacing the most knowledgeable sources with the most available.

“There was an open admission that the complexity of those stories would have to come down,” Lyon says. “Before, you would have made several contacts and made a decision among several contacts of whom to interview. Now you grab the first live body you can find and do the story. The viewers aren’t well served by that.

“Morale is going down precipitously, and people are feeling the bottom-line pressures like never before,” he says. “There are still highly ethical people working, but the economic overlay is grinding them down.

The great ethical failing today is that corporations are putting profits ahead of public service. But we’re worried about whether someone who’s a Girl Scout leader writes a story on the Girl Scouts.

-- Geneva Overholser,
University of Missouri School of Journalism

While cost cutting at KRON — once known as “the Bay Area’s most honored newsroom” for the wall of awards it has won — may be more severe than at most stations, Lyon thinks it’s only a matter of time before others face similar demands to cheapen the news.

It’s not just television.

Corporate executives trying to maintain the extraordinary profits of a less competitive age are downsizing or freezing staffs and conjuring new advertising-friendly synergies across all media. News workers nationwide report that these changes degrade the quality of their work and sap their desire to stay in journalism.

A national survey of journalists, conducted last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as part of the “State of the News Media 2004” report, found majorities of journalists believe that “increased bottom-line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage” (57 percent in local newsrooms and 66 percent in national newsrooms). Those numbers are up from fewer than half of respondents in both categories five years ago.

In a similar poll of journalists last summer by four major unions representing media workers, 83 percent of respondents said there had been “a lowering of journalistic standards” and that the industry’s most serious problem was “too much emphasis on the bottom line.” A majority said morale had worsened in the past two years, and 68 percent cited a lack of resources to do a professional job. (The survey, however, included only members of the Newspaper Guild, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, the American Federation of Television and Radio artists and the Writers Guild of America, East.)

Even top editors, such as Davis “Buzz” Merritt, who spent 42 years at Knight and then Knight Ridder — once the nation’s best newspaper chain — are writing tell-all exposés of public service subordinated to private profit.

“If, as seems likely, current journalistic and business trends continue,” Merritt writes in his new book Knightfall, “our democracy’s need for the relevant information that is its plasma will be imperiled because the bulk of the nation’s corporately owned daily press will not be able to meet that need while its leaders are motivated more urgently by the profit demands of Wall Street than by a desire to serve democracy.”

The question of news ethics is increasingly important because rapid changes in the standards of the industry are taking place with little debate among working journalists. In fact, because journalism’s codes of ethics focus more on “Thou shalt nots” than “Thou shalts” and preach to practitioners but not corporate executives, some journalists are reluctant to classify business decisions — even those that diminish news quality — as having anything to do with ethics.

Peter Sussman, an independent San Francisco Bay Area journalist who helped write the current SPJ Code, defines ethics very strictly: “‘Ethics really involve a small core of principles, smaller than good or bad journalism.” But William F. Woo, a professor of journalism at Stanford and former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, believes news organizations enter into a social contract when they receive First Amendment protections, postage and tax benefits and free use of public airwaves.

“There’s a taxpayer investment through subsidies for the press,” Woo explains. “The quid pro quo is that it has to do the best journalism that it can.”

If you’re going to have a code of ethics, make sure it applies to the boardroom as much as the newsroom.

-- Linda Foley, president,
The Newspaper Guild
More and more, he argues, media executives are reneging on that contract: “They sold their … soul to the devil when companies went public.”

Geneva Overholser, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington bureau and a former Washington Post ombudsman, decries a narrow view of journalism ethics focused only on practitioners.

“The great ethical failing today is that corporations are putting profits ahead of public service,” she says. “But we’re worried about whether someone who’s a Girl Scout leader writes a story on the Girl Scouts.

“We’re in a difficult environment for journalists to make ethical decisions: inadequate newsroom resources, lack of time, news hole, editing, journalists not getting training, losing experienced reporters, not looking for (subscription) starts in poor neighborhoods.”

News executives claim to follow the public service role of newspapers, she says, but they don’t follow up with actions.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where we help the public evaluate news for a project called Grade the News (www.gradethenews.org), many journalists say not only that their jobs are less secure than they used to be, but lowered expectations for the journalistic “product” due to economic pressures has made them less happy and less productive.

“I have friends in newsrooms across the country, and everyone is experiencing the same things,” says Stacy Finz, a veteran reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Everybody is feeling it. We’re told on a daily basis that newspapers are a dying business, that people are going to the Internet or television for their news.”

At the San Jose Mercury News, senior reporter Barry Witt is upset about management’s attempt to take dental insurance away from employees’ children. But even more ominous, he said, is the sudden lack of job security. A hiring freeze on the copy desk has left beats unfilled as reporters are involuntarily reassigned as copy editors.

“It’s terrorizing to the reporters and insulting to the copy editors,” says Lynne Dennis, a features desk copy editor at the Mercury News and president of the San Jose News Guild. “That definitely doesn’t serve our readers.

“The company is saying we have to pinch pennies wherever we can because we’re not meeting profit goals,” she adds. “They give the impression that they’re losing money, when they’re not. They’re not making enough money to satisfy their corporate shareholders. Well, I’m a shareholder, and I’m satisfied.”

At the Oakland Tribune, a new management team has promised a conciliatory approach but has invested little money in a newsroom that was previously stripped bare, said Sean Holstege, Newspaper Guild unit chair of the MediaNews Group’s local chain, the Alameda Newspaper Group, which includes the Tribune. He said it was hard to do his job as an investigative reporter when the company would not spring for a lawyer to demand public documents from recalcitrant government officials.

“In terms of quality, they’re on the right trajectory,” Holstege says. “But in terms of resources, we’re still not there. Most people I know struggle to make rent. That’s not good for morale.”

The effort to wring every dollar out of newsrooms also invites more traditional ethical shortcuts. Bill Mann, who writes media columns for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and several weekly Knight Ridder newspapers, recently discovered that at KCBS radio, one sports reporter has been enlisted to do dog food commercials.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says business decisions are “creating new ethical terrain” for reporters. Of special concern to him are sponsored segments on local television news. Tying content to advertising can create in the advertiser a sense of entitlement to manipulate the content. At minimum, it can distort news judgment when one topic is assured time because it’s sponsored, and others that may be more important are not.

Many of those interviewed expressed hopelessness — that journalists are powerless against the steamroller of corporate demands. But professor Overholser says the fact that journalists and the wider community are finally acknowledging and discussing the issue is reason for optimism.

One solution is being advanced by the Newspaper Guild, which has been moving beyond negotiating only for salaries and benefits. It’s working on a proposed “Code of Rights and Responsibilities.” The Guild expects to propose language that will put managers on notice that journalists expect a minimum commitment to public service.

“If you’re going to have a code of ethics, make sure it applies to the boardroom as much as the newsroom,” said Linda Foley, president of the Guild. “It’s not just the responsibility of the reporter to uphold the credibility of the newsroom, but also the owners.”

Michael Stoll is associate director and John McManus is director of Grade the News, a project affiliated with Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Journalism that does for news in the San Francisco Bay Area what Consumer Reports magazine does for cars and cameras.