One of the more interesting workshops at the annual Catholic Press Association convention is the discussion of journalistic ethics. The focus in recent years has been on copyright infringements related to the Internet. The preponderance of Web sites, and the need to fill space, has turned news gatherers into cannibals, often showing complete disregard and arrogance toward copyright rules.
Catholic News Service (CNS), the main source of national and international news for most U.S. Catholic newspapers and magazines, faces a daily struggle against foreign news agencies who view CNS as a “rich uncle” who should not mind the pirating of its stories.
The secular media reports some alarming news in recent weeks. The New York Times, considered to be the country’s premier newspaper, is reeling from news that one of its young reporters, Jayson Blair, plagiarized or concocted more than half of his stories since last year. The Times ran a 7,000-word investigative report in its May 12 edition detailing Blair’s deception.
“60 Minutes” had a segment about Stephen Glass, former writer for the New Republic, who fabricated most of his articles for that magazine and others. Glass admitted that he went to great lengths to deceive his editors, including creating imaginary Web sites, newsletters and voice mailboxes. He received a six figure advance as the author of a just-released novel, The Fabulist, the story of a “fictional” Washington journalist who lies about his stories.
The Los Angeles Times, another stalwart of U.S. journalism, recently fired one of its photographers, Brian Walski, for digitally altering the image of a British soldier motioning toward Iraqi civilians to take cover. Walski combined elements of two different photos to create a more dramatic image that was used on the front page.
What in the name of Joseph Pulitzer is going on here?
“The issue at hand here is reality and whether readers can trust the media to give it to us,” said Michael A. Longinow, journalism program coordinator for the Department of Communication Arts at Asbury College. “For some media critics, the answer was a firm ‘no’ before this debate ever emerged. For journalism optimists, the answer will always be ‘yes.’”
Longinow said that history tells us that most people fall into neither of these extremist groups. “They’re in the middle, an unconvinced, moderately troubled group who have tuned out the whole mess. They’ve had enough, and they’re staying away from media coverage in droves.”
“Reality shows” are all the rage on television these days. From Survivor to The Osborn’s, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. Viewers live vicariously through the characters they watch. Print journalists may be feeling the need to provide their readers with similarly “exciting” stories, even to the point of fabricating quotes and creating imaginary heroes.
This summer’s biggest box office smash is expected to be The Matrix Reloaded, a movie about a future world where technology overtakes man as the dominant intelligence on Earth. Machines breed humans in pod-like cocoons to harvest their neural electricity. The captives are oblivious to their bondage because they are plugged into a virtual-reality network known as the Matrix, which pumps their brains with mental projections which dupe them into thinking they are living normal lives.
An old commercial used to ask, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Unfortunately, many people are asking similar questions these days about what they see and hear on television and in newspapers.
Michael F. Flach is the Editor of the Arlington Catholic Herald. This article is reproduced here with permission.