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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Phone-hacking: The upside and downside for journalism

The feverish pace of developments in Murdoch-gate stirs emotional calls for a change in how journalists do their work, and in how society restrains unethical journalists. In the days ahead politicians and others will surely take the pulse of angry citizens and then propose “solutions” to the problems that caused the scandal.

The upside of the scandal for journalism is that people will take journalism ethics seriously. There will be public scrutiny of what standards are embraced by journalists and how they are enforced.  The scandal will give new life to the old debate about media power and concentration of media.

I welcome any public debate around strengthening journalism ethics.

The downside is that public faith in journalism will take another beating. Also, both earnest folks and opportunistic politicians will use the public anger to propose wide-reaching solutions, including laws aimed directly at inhibiting journalistic investigations. Such laws may prevent journalists from doing legitimate inquiries through the use of responsible methods.

In countries without a First Amendment, such as Britain, I fear that demagogues will use the force of public opinion to push through press laws that satisfy the mood of the public at this moment.

It is easy for many people to dislike a rich and powerful press baron like Rupert Murdoch.  Power, arrogance, wealth, and a willingness to crush competitors are not attributes that inspire wide public admiration.  But discussions about media reform should look past any personal feelings toward the Murdochs, and toward media barons in general.

Our proposals must look wider to the potential impact of any laws on robust, democratic journalism in general. Any proposal must delicately balance the freedoms and ethical obligations of the press. In this media-scandal climate,  talk of balance and nuance may well be lost amid the anger directed at the Murdochs.

Therefore, I stand in the middle of things.

I welcome the renewed interest in journalism standards, and the need to revisit our codes of ethics and newsroom practices. These changes to the culture of journalism can be beneficial and, indeed, necessary. I have spent most of my career advocating for such changes and improvements. However,  I am less sanguine when talk turns to laws. I do not flinch when it comes to laws that prevent media concentration. But I do flinch, and worry, when people promote general laws on (a) what the press can say or report — the content of journalism, or (b) on how the press can gather information, argued for under the rubric of “privacy.”

So, I say, be careful for what you wish.

Let the inquriers into this scandal flourish; let all of the truth be made known; let’s debate how journalism ethics should change or be strengthened; and let’s discuss how the public can keep the press accountable. But be careful when it comes to strict press laws that would apply to any type of story or investigation.

As the old legal saw goes, laws based on examples or exceptions almost invariably result in bad law.









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