Do you ever remember, in school, being the first to finish your work? Or coming first in a race? Or, perhaps, the first to unearth some crucial piece of drama; reveling in the glory of breaking it? Being “the first” to anything is exciting, exhilarating and… makes you want to do it again.
“Scoop Syndrome”, a term coined by longtime BBC journalist, Dame Esther Rantzen, describes the addictiveness of breaking news exclusives first: to publish that article, investigation or interview ahead of the rest. It is the rationale behind Martin Bashir’s unmasked tactics to secure the famous Diana interview. Whilst no one is excusing him of the atrocities that have been divulged in recent media, Dame Rantzen hinted that the condition may be a familiar diagnosis to many in the industry.
“There will be times when every reporter considers cutting corners to get a story before everyone else,” Mark Connor of Fife Times says. “With social media being so prevalent, this phenomenon is naturally only becoming more intense.” Jess Brammar, previously executive editor of HuffPost UK and deputy editor of BBC Newsnight, emphasises, though, that those who actually give into temptation, who bend or even break the rules, are in the minority: “I haven’t personally worked with people who want to get stories 'whatever it takes. Sure, it’s intoxicating to break a big story… but nobody wants to get sued.”
Perhaps, then, the likes of Bashir, alongside Piers Morgan and Rupert Murdoch - for who can forget the grotesqueness of the phone hacking scandals - occupy only a tiny subsection of the industry; their corner shared with certain tabloids - those accused of carrying out blatant and targeted bullying campaigns,.
What is it about journalism that makes it so pliable in the wrong hands, the scrutinising eye of the law notwithstanding?
“The modern journalism landscape relies very heavily on ad revenues and clicks,” says Tamara Krivskaya, journalist at News Associates, “which is directly correlated with the extent to which a story is sensationalist. Unfortunately, as journalism is such a competitive industry, many young journalists will go against their instincts for fear of losing the byline or their job.”
How do other workplaces cope? Take Medicine: not only do all medics swear to a revised edition of the Hippocratic Oath before qualifying, they have a regulatory body - the General Medical Council (GMC) - set up by doctors to ensure other doctors adhere to their professional, legal and ethical duties. The powers of the GMC are such that if doctors don’t toe the line, they are at risk of losing their jobs - and their ability to practice medicine at all.
Our standards should be analogous. Our industry is, in many respects, similarly prevalent in peoples’ lives. Journalists shape our entire worldview - no matter where you get your news from, you’re being unconsciously influenced by the reporters who cover the stories, the editors who alter the angles, and the writers who deconstruct and dissect the events of the present.
In theory, journalistic ethics exist. Several mainstay principles include honesty, fairness, and harm minimisation. Ethical codes exist too, including the IPSO Editors Code in the UK. However, as Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, discusses, there remain “tensions between ethics, freedom of information and speech, and the need to disseminate information”. Furthermore, the majority of IPSO’s board has “no connections with the magazine or newspaper industry”, and the Editors Code is for editors, not individual writers; freelance or otherwise. Ultimately, the presence of an ethical code doesn’t equate to its full understanding by industry workers, and the lack of a centralised regulatory body paves the way for lackadaisical practice and misunderstanding.
Simply tightening regulations to better control a nefarious minority is not the way to go. As Jess Brammar states: “We have to empower journalists to keep telling stories powerful people don’t want in the public domain, and if we swing too far the other way, then ultimately the public loses out.” Rather, let's more universally enforce the ethical principles that should already be at the forefront of writers’ minds. Why not ensure all writers, at all publications, have to read and sign a similar set of acknowledgements to the IPSO code before each and every article is published?
Why not create a journalist-ran, governing body; one that views any questionable issues on a case-by-case basis, assessed by those who know the industry best? Not only could this help the public better find credible, ethical sources, it will help publications trust their writers, and help journalists be better guided in their writing.
Perhaps stating the consequences of journalists-gone-askew within the regulation could serve as a warning to all? As Mark Connor said: “Cutting corners is one thing to gain an edge - it happens in every walk of life - but being deceitful and nasty to get you where you want will only ever end up getting you in one place. For reference: ask Morgan, Johnson, and Bashir.”
Written by Lucy Dunn
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