Friday, July 22, 2011

The Murdoch Scandal: Is There A Double Standard?

By Richard A. Lee

The job of a journalist is to report the news, but occasionally journalists become the news.

We saw this in New Jersey recently when the state’s decision to transfer operations of New Jersey Network to WNET became a major news story. In fact, over the past 10 to 15 years, the business side of the industry often has been in the news as cutbacks, layoffs and ownership consolidation changed the landscape of journalism in America. At other times, conflicts with authority have made for good copy, such as cases in which journalists went to jail for refusing to reveal sources and the decision by WikiLeaks to release thousands of classified government documents.

Now, News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch and the phone hacking scandal at News of the World, a now defunct British tabloid that had been part of Murdoch’s media empire, are dominating the headlines.

The scandal has all of the elements of a major news story that merits the extensive coverage. It involves allegations of hacking into the telephone accounts of the British Royal Family, a 13-year old murder victim, family members of individuals killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a variety of celebrities and politicians. Additional charges have surfaced, alleging that the newspaper obtained information by making payments to law enforcement authorities and through other improper means.

Not surprisingly the allegations have sparked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic – from the public, from lawmakers and even from other media entities. After a series of major advertisers pulled their business from News of the World (and several more threatened to do likewise), the 168-year old newspaper closed. U.S. and British government agencies are conducting investigations, and longtime critics of Murdoch and News Corp are using the scandal to renew their disapproval of his style of journalism.

Hacking into a phone account is illegal and the investigations under way clearly are warranted, but one can’t help but wonder whether there is a double standard being employed here. After all, journalists obtain information in all sorts of manners in order to do their jobs. Obtaining a confidential memo may not be illegal, but if the memo actually was written for public dissemination, it would not have been confidential.

Likewise for confidential sources. How often do we see important information attributed to someone who speaks under the condition of anonymity because he or she is not authorized to speak publicly? Thanks to today’s electronic databases, we can answer this hypothetical question with a real number. A search of the Access World News database shows that the phrase “condition of anonymity” appeared in U.S. newspapers 735 times during a week one-week period this month. Thirty-six of the appearances were in New Jersey publications.

Overall, the use of anonymity made sense in the majority of these stories since they dealt with items such as legal matters, military strategy and labor negotiations. Ironically, one of the articles was a widely published Associated Press report that the FBI had launched an investigation into the News of the World scandal. The source of the information was identified only as a law enforcement official who “spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.”

Obviously, quoting an anonymous source is a far cry from hacking into a phone account or paying a public official for information. Nevertheless, there are some parallels. Although individuals who leak information or serve as anonymous sources generally do not do so to receive monetary payments, they do garner some type of benefit for their actions, such as increased public support for a candidate, an elected official or a controversial project.

Anonymous sources and leaks are integral components of journalism. Without them, stories that changed history and saved people’s lives might never have been written. On the other hand, obtaining information illegally through telephone hacking and payments to government officials, as has been alleged in the News of the World case, is wrong and gives the entire industry a black eye. But in between is a large grey area because, when it comes to ethical dilemmas in the world of journalism, most issues are neither black nor white.

# # #

Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter.