By Caitlin Kelly
Do you trust what you read, hear or see in the mass media?
A Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans a few months back says no:
Their findings: just 21 percent of the people surveyed ranked newspaper reporters with high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Next came lawyers, tying with 21 percent, followed by TV reporters at 20 percent, then advertisers at a miserable 14 percent.
One of the paper’s more challenging demands, for example, is that no freelance writer can ever accept a paid trip to write a travel story, (even for another publication or outlet) — which leaves its travel section open only to people with deep-enough pockets to jet off to exotic destinations and pay all their food and lodging as well.
One writer, Mike Albo, lost a nice weekly column in the Times after he took a paid trip to Jamaica; he turned it into a very funny, and very accurate one-man show, The Junket, which I saw and admired.
Welcome to the economic costs of ethics!
Another issue the Times is fussy about, and which seems fair to me, is not interviewing friends, relatives or groups in which you have a financial interest — i.e. your brother-in-law’s fab new company.
On this blog, I occasionally mention companies, products and experiences I’ve enjoyed — none of whom pay me to do so. If and when I’m able to get sponsored posts, I’ll be very clear who’s paying me to say what.
So when I read or listen to “news” of any sort, I expect to be told of any potential conflict of interest, even though that’s unlikely.
If someone takes a freebie, then raves about said item or experience, they need to come clean to their audience.
I once attended BlogHer, an annual conference that attracts 5,000 bloggers. I didn’t much care for it, although it’s obviously hugely popular.
The reason I would not go back was the exhibition hall, where women thronged the booths to collect as much free loot as they could carry. That’s not why I write or blog.
It’s also not what journalists do.
Have you followed the excruciating behavior — and criminal trial it led to — by UK editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson?
A British jury has declared Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and executive at News Corp., not guilty of criminal charges. She had been charged with participating in the paper’s phone-hacking practices, for covering up evidence, and for involvement in payoffs to silence the police or solicit their help in fetching fresh news stories. At the same time, they found Andrew Coulson, Brooks’s successor—who went on to serve as communications director for the Prime Minister—guilty on charges of conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Stuart Kuttner, the paper’s former managing editor, was also found not guilty; charges against some of the editors’ other colleagues have yet to be resolved. But a criminal case is not the final word on whether either editor, or News Corp., nor much of the British tabloid press, has betrayed the principles of journalism.
Ethical failures may not merit a jail term; they do merit a spotlight. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Sir Brian Leveson, a prominent judge, to call witnesses to inquire into the culture and ethics of the British press. A year later, Leveson issued a report than ran more than two thousand pages.
Other recent ethics scandals have depressed and dismayed many, like the discovery that Cambodian human rights advocate Somaly Mam had been less than truthful.
Now Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, is calling on Kristof to “give readers a full explanation” of his reporting on Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, according to a recent Newsweek expose, fabricated parts of her story and those of some of the alleged victims she advocated for. The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly, they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.
Kristof was hardly alone in promoting Mam and her initiatives. Several respected outlets, including Newsweek, have played handmaiden to her celebrity. Consider just a partial list of media-bestowed accolades: Mam was named a CNN Hero and Glamour’s Woman of the Year. She was included in the Time 100, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women—the list goes on. When stories like hers crumble, however, few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.
And this, from Salon, about non-profits who are also not revealing their own ethical bonsai:
Partnerships between NGOs and big-brand companies are developing even faster than those with energy and pharmaceutical corporations. Environmentalists have led the way, collaborating with, and accepting money from, big-box retailers and brand manufacturers. The Environmental Defense Fund blazed a trail in 1990 by partnering with McDonald’s to phase out the restaurant chain’s Styrofoam packaging. Today such partnerships are ubiquitous. IKEA works with WWF as a “marketing partner,” providing funding through the Global Forest and Trade Network to “create a new market for environmentally responsible forest products.” Conservation International works with Starbucks on sourcing coffee beans and with Walmart on tracking the sources of the company’s jewelry products. Monsanto and The Walt Disney Company are two other “featured” corporate partners of Conservation International (as of June 2013).
Executives from these companies also sit on the boards of environmental NGOs. As of June 2013, the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s includes Robert J. Fisher, past Chairman of the Gap board of directors, and Alan F. Horn, current chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. Neville Isdell, former CEO of Coca-Cola, is chairman of the board of the U.S. branch of WWF (known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) (as of June 2013). Rob Walton, chair of Walmart, also chairs the executive committee of Conservation International’s board of directors, which, as of June 2013, includes Paul Polman of Unilever (current chief executive), Heidi Miller of JPMorgan Chase (retired former president), and Orin Smith of Starbucks (retired former CEO).
Social and human rights organizations have generally been less receptive to partnering with big-brand companies. But this is changing, too.
I tend to be a fairly trusting person — until I get burned — as I recently was by a fellow blogger who really should have known better than to try to screw me.
I’ve sent her several un-answered emails asking her to do the right thing.
Many of you already read her blog, filled with cute personal stories and a you-go-girl! flavor. She blogs about writing and how to become a better writer and is very popular; last time I looked, she had almost 30,000 followers.
I used to read her blog and enjoyed it.
Then she reached out to me, after months of my comments, and asked me to teach for one of her on-line conferences. I did, offering my time and talent to nine of her students — unpaid. In return, she said, I could guest post and promote or link to my own classes.
I fulfilled my part of the deal.
She never did.
What ethical breaches have you recently faced?
Do you care if people behave ethically toward you or others?