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What's a Picture Worth?

Many readers reacted with strong disapproval when The Plain Dealer of Cleveland last November ran a front page photograph of a man falling to his death from the seventh floor window of a downtown building. In a column the next day, editor Doug Clifton responded by analyzing the paper's decision-making process and reflecting on the difference between photographs of people falling from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and that published by The Plain Dealer. The former, he said, illustrated "the tragedy of an event like no other," while the latter had minimal "intrinsic news value" and no "broader significance." "Offending the readers isn't the issue," he said, "it's offending them without sufficient justification." It was a dramatic picture, he said, because it was rare. "We saw it as journalists tend to see things, not as mothers and fathers do," he said. "Journalists find 'news' and publish it. Mothers and fathers protect, and fret and worry. We saw the photo as a unique and dramatic news element. Mothers and fathers-readers-saw it as a tragic end of a life." He said he realized he owed the readers an apology when the only justification he could muster as to why he ran the photo was because "we were there." Now, that's plain dealing.

Where In the World?

When the state-owned France 2 television channel last February erroneously reported that former Prime Minister Alain Juppツ would resign from his elected and appointed positions because of his conviction on corruption charges, an avalanche of criticism followed. To the great embarrassment of reporters and producers at France 2, he announced later-over another channel-that he would not resign. When the channel's elected ethics council asked employees for their views on the blunder, more than two-thirds of journalists expressed no confidence in the France 2 news director and his team. In addition, several senior reporters complained that they are regularly excluded from the news decision-making process and others said that serious errors occur frequently. The France 2 ombudsman reported that credibility issues and the introduction of advertising made many France 2 supporters feel as though the channel were selling out. He added that the channel was having difficulty competing with private television channels and was forced to take journalistic risks to survive. 'Tis a far, far better thing? The International Federation of Journalists recently accused public broadcaster TVE, among other private and public Spanish media, of lacking impartiality. To make matters worse, in January the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe accused Spanish public radio and television of "news manipulation." In response, employees of Televisiᄁn Espaᄂola formed an Independent Advisory Council to study the manipulation issue "which is seriously undermining the credibility of the public channel and its workers." Some blame the legal framework within which the channel operates. Every new government appoints its own public broadcasting head and the parliamentary committee elected to oversee it has the same partisan makeup as the parliament itself. Critics say this gives the government in power many opportunities to control content. In a recent example reported by expatica.com, the families of 62 Spanish soldiers killed in a plane crash on their way home from Afghanistan accused the government of chartering a cheap, ill-equipped aircraft to save money. The families said their complaints have not been covered at all by TVE. The government has denied any news manipulation. Biting the hand that feeds it apparently is not an option at TVE.

Fox Hunts for a Sense of Humor

Matt Groening, creator of Fox Entertainment's The Simpsons said that Fox News last October threatened to sue the makers of the animated show because of an item on The Simpsons' satirical news ticker. Fox News allegedly was not amused by the crawl that said "Do Democrats cause cancer? Find out on foxnews.com" because it thought it made fun of the news operation at Fox. "Fox said they would sue the show and we called their bluff," Groening said, "...We didn't think that Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself." Fox News denied a lawsuit threat was ever issued, but a new Fox policy no longer allows fake news tickers on the bottom of a cartoon's screen "because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news." It certainly makes sense for Fox to not want anything to detract from its "real news" product-they report, we decide. Hallelujah!

When Silence Is Not so Golden

John Humphrys, BBC's top radio interviewer, threatened to resign in October after his editors removed from one of his interviews a controversial segment-a 12-second silence. Humphrys was interviewing Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the Today program and asked him if he thought the Iraq war was "immoral." After a 12-second silence, admittedly a huge pause for a radio segment, the archbishop said that it was a complicated topic but he "would find it very hard to give unqualified support to the rightness of that decision." When Humphrys asked why it took the archbishop so long to respond, Williams said "Immoral is a short word for a very, very long discussion." After the interview was over and Humphrys had prepared promotional spots for the interview, the archbishop protested the Iraq question and said he thought there was an agreement not to talk about Iraq. The show's editor agreed and, without informing Humphrys, the cut was made. The BBC later explained that it had accepted the archbishop's explanation and "in the interests of fair dealing, decided not to run that section of the interview which went beyond its main purpose." And that purpose was?

Euro-Checkbook Journalism?

Le Monde recently reported that the European Commission considers that "audiovisual and multimedia communication has become the main stream of information in the EU's communication and information strategy." For this reason, the commission has set aside funds to support the development of radio and television programs that "contribute to a better perception of the EU." Plagued by increasing skepticism about the central powers of the EU, Brussels bureaucrats are trying to improve the Union's image by encouraging electronic media in member states to do stories explaining the goals and methods of Union policies in areas such as defense and food safety and the "historic, cultural and human links between the (newly admitted to membership Eastern European) accession countries and the member states," Le Monde said. These specific criteria for funding of up to $330,000 for a television program and up to $82,000 for radio come on the heels of a new "Code of Conduct for Media in Brussels." Item 7 of the code says that media should "make available information regarding any benefits providing a pecuniary advantage provided by public authorities, including information on engagement in projects or activities funded by international organizations." One wonders if those journalists who get the subsidies and abide by all these limitations and instructions will also follow the spirit of Item 7.

Foolish Consistency Is the Hobgoblin...

When Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle lost his position in August 1998 (see "The Summer from Hell" in MEDIA ETHICS, 10:1, Fall 1998), the competing Boston Herald newspaper's headline read "Globe's decision to cleanse its pages of Mike Barnicle" and its then-editor rejected the idea of hiring Barnicle with the words "I don't think he'd meet our standards here." But on March 8, 2004, the Herald proudly announced that it had hired Barnicle to write a regular column for it. Is there supposed to be a distinction between "high road" and "high profit"?

From the "What Were They Thinking?" File

Paul Holmes, one of New Zealand's best known journalists, had to apologize last September for using crude racist language toward U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. In a morning talk show, Holmes referred to Annan as a "darkie" and a "cheeky darkie," and said "We are not going to be told how to live by a Ghanaian." He later apologized and said his remarks were "tongue-in-cheek"..."at the shock end of the spectrum" and "a bit mad probably." He said he is not a racist. Just a reporter?

The Lancet Comes to a Boil

Finally, the British medical science journal The Lancet had to apologize earlier this year for publishing an article written by someone with a "fatal conflict of interest." The article alleged that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was linked to autism. It appears as though the article's author had neglected to tell the magazine editors that he was being paid by parents of the alleged vaccine victims to conduct a study supporting the autism link and their requests for compensation. Oops...do ethics have spots?

*This column is a regular feature in MEDIA ETHICS. Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, c/o MEDIA ETHICS. The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp.2,23-24.