Housing activists (mainly members of VanAct) stage illegal occupation of vacant store in Olympic Village, Feb. 26, 2011
Last week I finally got the chance to see Page One: A year inside the New York Times. It’s a wonderful fly-on-the-wall documentary which chronicles about a year at the paper during which the print industry struggles with new online news platforms and aggregators. The film also gives us a glimpse at how the New York Times grappled with the emergence of Wikileaks. We get a behind-the-scenes look at how Wikileaks was understood by the paper and how the rocky Times-Wikileaks relationship benefited both parties.
There’s a scene in the film wherein media reporter Brian Stelter is interviewing Julian Assange over the phone. He’s trying to figure out if Assange is posturing as a journalist or an activist. What we get is a bit of a muddled response of “both.” Stelter presses on, asking Assange is he accepts the basic journalistic ethic that you don’t break any laws to get your story. Assange retreats to the comfort of activism in the face of this supposed tenet. While Stelter may not have got the clarity he could have hoped for, he was able to distance Assange from himself and his colleagues at the New York Times.
To some, the issue of breaking the law to get a story is black and white. Two weeks ago, before the international news cycle moved on to the Oslo massacre/bombing, we all sat fixated on the News of the World case as Rupert Murdoch and company gave testimony before a parliamentary committee. The public airing of News of the World’s dirty laundry made it abundantly clear that the world generally won’t tolerate something as egregious as hacking into the private voice mail accounts of relatives of dead British soldiers, murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, or victims of the 7/7 London bombings. Nor will the public tolerate police corruption and bribery.
What the News of the World scandal also shows us, however, is that simply hacking into the voice mail accounts of celebrities, royalty and politicians doesn’t exactly raise our hackles. This practice was uncovered and publicized five years ago during a police investigation. There was a scandal to be sure, but the paper continued to thrive and the practice of breaking into private voice mail continued unabated. The scandal also shows us that at least at the News of the World, breaking the law to get a story wasn’t an ethical qualm in the least. One mustn’t confuse tabloids like News of the World with more serious and respectable broadsheets, but I’d be surprised if the writers at News of the World didn’t fancy themselves journalists.
One of the more tragic elements to the News of the World story was the death of Sean Hoare, who was among the first to go public and describe how endemic the practice of phone hacking and general law-breaking was at News of the World. Hoare’s July 18th death was described as “unexplained, but not suspicious.” To some it didn’t seem to be a huge surprise. Hoare’s lifestyle was reportedly laced with cocaine and other rock star tendencies.
In the wake of Hoare’s death, the Guardian’s Nick Davies wrote a candid pseudo-obituary. Davies describes the career of the tabloid showbusiness reporter as drug-riddled mess. Davies writes that, “Looking back, [Hoare] could see it had done him enormous damage. But at the time, as he recalled, most of his colleagues were doing it, too.” It seems that getting the scoop just meant you had to cast any legal (and in this case, health) considerations aside. If you were to make a hot scoop omelette, you were going to have to break some journalistic eggs.
In Canada, the threshold for ethical journalism isn’t much clearer. This 2006 CTV news story about a squalid foster home in Saanich, BC serves as an interesting case in point. The news crew was given access to the house by the landlord (likely in violation of BC’s Residential Tenancy Act), and while filming the abhorrent conditions of the home, the resident/foster parent returns. CTV’s crew is told, in no uncertain terms, to leave immediately. As the crew backs toward the door they attempt to interview the resident about the filth the foster children are subjected to. The resident makes a move to go upstairs and the camera operator pauses and continues to press for answers. The camera clearly doesn’t push back into the house at all, but the crew is told repeatedly to leave the property, and they certainly take their time doing so.
When asked about the story, Ethan Faber, Managing Editor of CTV British Columbia agrees that questions of ethics in journalism aren’t always black and white, but he asserts that the crew worked within the bounds of the law. In an emailed statement Faber writes, “On the issue of trespass, we make sure all of our crews are well versed in the law, and that means when we are asked to leave private property, we immediately do so.” He goes on to add, “But we also make sure our reporters and camera operators know they are perfectly within their legal rights to continue rolling and asking questions while in the act of departing.”
This specific story is interesting, not only because the potential legal transgressions were aired on the evening news, but also because the story raked in the accolades, as Faber points out. The story won the 2007 Jack Webster Award for Best (TV) News Reporting of the Year as well as the RTNDA Award for Best 2006 In-depth/Investigative TV Story. Perhaps more to the point, Faber writes, “We’re very proud of our 2006 investigation into the Saanich foster home, an investigation that resulted in two children being removed from an unsafe situation and a full review by the provincial government of foster home placement and supervision procedures.” The emphasis is on public interest.
This is consistent with the Canadian institutions responsible for mandating ethics in journalism. The RTNDA Code of Ethics doesn’t mention legal considerations at all, while the CBSC Code of Ethics only refers to ensuring the legality of advertising and employment standards. It seems any legal issue will be matter of recourse by the authorities, or a plaintiff in a civil suit, as the case may be. In the case of the aforementioned CTV story, there was no legal fallout for the station.
While Brian Stelter may take comfort in the lack of ambiguity his question displays, the reality of news reporting isn’t nearly so clear. In most cases, the responsibility to follow the rule of law falls on the reporter, with the consequences being his or hers to bear. As the News of the World case shows us, the public won’t react well if breaking the law (routinely in that case) doesn’t seem to be a matter of critical public interest. There’s a question of degree at play (how many camera operators and photographers have jaywalked to get a better angle?), furthermore, one can be sure that there’s an element of professional shame associated with getting caught. News directors may make decisions based on whether or not they think they’ll be prosecuted. But at least in Canada breaking the law to get a story doesn’t mean you can’t be categorized as a journalist. Rest easy, Julian Assange, if you’re not to be considered a journalist, it isn’t because you allegedly break the law to get your scoops.