Last Tuesday, two men testified in Britain about a hacking scandal. Not a hacking scandal to release classified government documents. Not even a hacking scandal to skim credit card or ATM numbers, although the motive for financial gain was certainly present.
The men were Tom Crone and Colin Myler, former senior executives of News Corporation. On Tuesday, they testified about a British newspaper, News of the World, that allegedly hacked the voicemail accounts of a 13-year-old murder victim and the relatives of fallen soldiers. They testified that they told James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and heir to News Corporation, just how far the hacking extended back in 2008.
Although the testimony will continue for some time, News of the World has already felt the damage. Following the initial allegations earlier this summer, the paper so feared by both British police and politicians closed July 11th. While the paper may be finished, the questions raised about declining journalistic standards are far from answered.
Unfortunately, this decline in journalistic standards isn’t confined to News of the World. Rather, current media trends reward reporting ranging from poorly researched to simply unethical. The problem is structural.
With the advent of cable news broadcasting came the 24-hour news cycle. No longer were we satisfied consuming news daily, paper spread on our laps and cup of coffee in hand. Now, we could have news updates as they came in, the sooner the better. How could print newspapers compete, especially for breaking news stories? With constantly-updated online versions of the print paper. While this strategy has helped print newspapers compete with broadcast journalists, it rushes the process. Good journalism takes time. It takes research, fact-checking, and thorough editing. No matter how competent the journalist, this rush to publish online inevitably leads to less thorough reporting and more inaccurate stories. In the News of the World scandal, it even led reporters to act unethically, all for the purpose of acquiring information faster than the competition.
To be fair, errors made in online stories are often corrected before going to print. But print publication is costly. In contrast, online media requires little start-up and is cheaper to maintain. The advantages inherent to online media have created an abundance of online news sources, including online-only newspapers, blogs, and social media sites. As these news sources become increasingly competitive with one another, we become over-saturated with the same information, the same facts and details repeated endlessly through infinite news sources. No longer are we content with just the facts, each as carelessly swept into the garbage as the newspaper itself. Now we demand entertainment. We demand juicy details, even controversy. Anything to make us choose this news source over that one. Above all, News of the World’s forte—sensationalism.
These trends both propelled tabloids forward and nailed the coffin of print journalism. Online newspapers, originally intended only as supplements for the print dailies, have forced a decline in print subscriptions and a loss of revenue. High-end papers, such as News Corp.’s Times of London, lose millions a year. Why pay if you can get it online for free? Even if your preferred paper doesn’t have an online version, you can find the information elsewhere. Consumers are still willing to shell out money—but only if the information is different. If no one else is reporting it. If it’s sensationalized. Cue tabloids like News of the World, whose profits balanced the losses of the Times.
Earlier in this article, I said the problem was structural. Time for full disclosure: we are the structural problem. Scandals like News of the World will happen again and again because people are willing to pay for tabloids over quality journalism. The first step is to stop supporting papers whose journalistic standards aren’t up to par. The outrage in Britain was a good start. We should also remind ourselves that good reporting takes time. The quickest updates aren’t necessarily the most factual nor the latest scoop the most ethically acquired.
Most importantly, we must come to terms with the money needed to pay journalists and to produce a quality publication. We need to support quality journalism—and that includes financially. The 24 hour news cycle and the proliferation of online media have given our news consumption a sense of entitlement. Why should we pay for news? Shouldn’t information be free? Isn’t information central to engaged citizenship and to democracy itself? It most certainly is. A world without journalistic integrity — above all, a world of misinformation — threatens democracy every, single day.