By Eric Berto
Note: I co-wrote this with my colleague Kelly Perkins.
The News of the World phone hacking scandal will permanently affect the perception the public has of the word “journalist.”
To recap, the News of the World is a British tabloid that has been accused of hacking the phones of international figures, 9-11 victims and British Royalty. Poynter has a great explanation. The event is still fresh in our minds and we felt it important to explore the larger implications on journailsm and communications.
As communications professionals, we’ve all watched the debates on the future of journalism, the future of communications. We’ve talked about what blogging, social media, citizen journalism and content aggregators will mean for the coveted written word. Now Rupert Murdoch, one of the most iconic figures in journalism, is the center of an ethics debate — and on the frontpage of many of the newspapers he owns. Needless to say, the situation gives us pause to contemplate.
The state of journalism is in flux. It is either morphing into a free-for-all landscape where anybody with Internet access is a journalist. Or, the true journalists still exist in the form of somebody willing to conduct interviews, challenge the information given and work to gather facts not normally accessible. The effects of this scandal on the public’s perception are still unknown, but some of our colleagues in the UK have come up with a few possible scenarios.
We may see political parties distance themselves from media organizations in the short term to avoid being implicated by complicity. However, as traditional media organizations still hold a lot of power and influence, it is important not to discount their impact on elite decision-makers and the electorate. As noted by Nick Robinson, political editor for the BBC, “Politicians and the press are fated to be locked perpetually in a loveless embrace.”
It is likely that there will be a change in the dichotomy between newspapers and the likes of social media outlets. For example, a Twitter campaign to boycott the paper and put pressure on advertisers gained a lot of traction and cannot be discounted as a factor in the decision to close News of the World.
The reputation of traditional media outlets and journalism may have been significantly tarnished by this episode. As such, it may now be important to place emphasis on direct consumer engagement, rather than relying on traditional media to deliver key messages.
Here’s what we know: Social media spreads rumors information faster than wildfire and thanks to the incredibly tech-savvy individuals out there capturing stories in real time. So, if your behavior has crossed the line, it’s already too late. You’ve lost control. You’ve become the story.
Ideally, you could get in a time machine and go back to the moment where you didn’t ask the right probing question, hired the wrong person to represent you and fix it. Second best? Have a strong moral compass and use it at all times. Avoid the worst-case scenario by thinking about the consequences with your most trusted advisors. But if you don’t, you must react quickly. Things Murdoch & Co could’ve done here are:
Now that media IS the controversy it so often covers, there will also be lasting effects for journalism. Other companies will undoubtedly take a hard look at policies and procedures for investigative reporting. Some will need to make changes — more may be exposed publicly. Public trust may temporarily or permanently shift to citizen journalists from recognized outlets. Media mergers and buyouts could stall, given that governments may examine the risks posed by larger media conglomerates. And, next time the media go to cover a big corporate scandal, its credibility will be questioned more than ever. Big media, as a whole, loses even more power to influence public opinion, elicit action from leaders and gain access.
What happened with the News of the World is sad. It’s sad for the victims. It’s sad for the reporters, editors, police and other officials involved. But there’s stories to tell here, and being able to stay on top of that story is as important now as ever.