In his study of newspaper readership, Ted Glasser observed that people who missed reading the paper felt informationally and emotionally unprepared to meet the day, and felt they were deprived not only of information but of the "serenity provided by the news reading ritual."1
But, to attract more and younger readers, many papers provide shock rather than serenity. Earlier this year, readers of an alternative newspaper in a California central coast community arguably were emotionally unprepared for the front page story they were about to read.
The New Times: San Luis Obispo County's News and Entertainment Weekly is a weekly, free publication. The article in its February 2, 2006 issue was titled "Meth Made Easy." It was a sarcastic and sometimes flippant view of a growing (in the case of marijuana, pun intended) local, regional and state drug problem. The story had been triggered by a recent police raid on a local methamphetamine "laboratory." The establishment of local meth labs apparently was reflecting a change from an imported hierarchical to a local distributed pattern of production and distribution of this pervasive and popular "recreational" drug. The story included a sidebar interview with a habitual meth user, "Meth Fun Facts" and-wait for it-a complete, detailed recipe for making methamphetamine in the privacy of one's own home: The ingredients (and how to obtain them), the process and equipment needed, and even the warning that the directions should be followed carefully, since the drug was not only illegal, but mistakes could lead to explosions and fires during the production process.2
What followed was a calamity for the newspaper, but not necessarily for the drug business. Various local news media reported that the editor-in-chief had stated that possibly thousands of issues of the paper allegedly had been confiscated (and probably destroyed), and hundreds of letters to the editor landed in the electronic and postal service mailboxes and on the pages of the New Times in the weeks following. Boycotts were threatened by advertisers.3 However, the attempted justification of the "do it yourself" story by the editor-in-chief further fanned the flames of attack on the paper.
The Internet Made Me Do It
Amidst the mea culpas in a letter of apology Jim Mullin (the then-newly installed, and since departed, editor-in-chief) published on February 9th was a rationale for the story's content that defied many of the principles of journalistic gatekeeping and sound ethical judgment. The editor lamented the paucity of mainstream media coverage-which had been largely restricted to routine reportage of drug possession arrests-of the community's drug problems and claimed that the New Times primarily had sought to explain the intricacies of a meth lab. Ostensibly, according to Mullin, the purpose of the story was to meet the paper's duty to raise public awareness of the easy accessibility of materials, supplies, equipment, and information on producing the drug.
In doing so, the paper rested much of its justification for the "how to do it" section upon the ubiquity of Internet sources disseminating similar information and "an embracing society's" unfettered access to such knowledge. Moreover, from the perspective of the New Times, it was incumbent upon the paper to maintain "consistency with [this] reality of cyberspace" and continue to support the accuracy and truth-telling tone of the article.4
Coarsening of Public Discourse
James Carey once posited that reading a newspaper is not about learning anything new "but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed.".5 Indeed some would argue that news has a function of sustaining social order,.".6 which would seem to empower journalists to adopt a humanistic ethic that appeals to a broader sense of what is best for society and not just for a journalist's audience..".7 In his letter of apology, editor-in-chief Mullin expressed remorse and admitted that "Meth Made Easy" could have been more resolute about not condoning or endorsing the use of the drug, and that the resulting public outrage put into jeopardy the trust New Times supposedly enjoyed in the community. He briefly retreated from his own circulation-building pragmatism and acknowledged that publishing the raw "do-it-yourself" information from the Internet alienated the community. But he protested that he had hoped to have "enlightened a few parents" to the dangers of the drug.8
And therein lie the ethical dilemmas.
Mullin acted as a neo-Kantian, blinded by duty without regard to consequences. The duty he adopted was to publish "Meth Made Easy" in order to inform the community about meth, beyond routine reportage of police activity. He did not consider possible consequences, either the potential for people to use the "how-to-do-it" instructions or the potentially negative reaction to the story by the public.9 Such a philosophy is consonant with Mullin's argument that the public has a right to know whatever there is to know, which expands the ambit of the First Amendment right to free speech and free press. However, as journalist Kurt Luedtke opines, if this is so then the public should play a role in the news-producing dynamic, making a determination of what it is that they think they need to know.10 In that light, perhaps the most ethically correct as well as prudent decision would have been merely to publish the URLs and other sources found on the Internet, or simply refer to the ease through which Internet search engines facilitate such retrieval, leaving the ultimate step of finding out how to make methamphetamine up to the reader.
"Meth Made Easy" also included a sidebar of statistical information gleaned from Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Justice Web sites-but they arguably leave the reader guessing whether or not these statistics reflect local concerns and behavior. A story that used local police, fire, and medical officials and leaders to amplify the legal ramifications and safety risks of starting or operating a meth lab in the community might have allowed New Times to fill the void it perceived of news reportage on the topic, while eschewing publication of both routine information about arrested drug users and the "how-to-do-it" details. But as a functioning, rule-observing non-consequentialist, Mullin succeeded only in alienating those very constituencies and the general public he says he is out to serve.
Finally, by arguing that the public availability of the Internet-usually a resource for special interest and insular individuals and groups11-makes it necessary to use this source for details of the paper's "Meth Made Easy" story, New Times seems to be saying that "because everyone is using (or could be using) this source of information, it is our responsibility to use it also." If so, this is carrying the concept of "pack journalism" to an extreme in an effort to get in front of the story, scooping rather than losing to the competition and thus avoiding the adverse effects of shifting market forces and burgeoning Internet resources. But such a course takes both risks: losing the public's trust and coarsening public sensibilities.12
For practicing deontologists, I doubt that this case put them on notice. New Times' former editor-in-chief jealously defended the means for arriving at his end result-in spite of the public outcry. "Meth Made Easy," while it may have failed in its mission to promote community awareness of a growing illegal drug problem, did succeed in galvanizing a community-against the newspaper. In other words, the community cast a tacit vote for a more humanistic approach to the news it receives.
1 Theodore L. Glasser (April 2000). "Play and the Power of News," Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism,(1) pp. 23-29.
2 Alice Moss, "Meth Made Easy," New Times, Feb. 2, 2006.
3 Jim Mullin, "From the Editor," New Times, Feb. 9, 2006.
5 James W. Carey (1989), "A Cultural Approach to Communication," Communication, (2), p. 8.
6 Jack Lule (2001), Daily News, Eternal Stories. New York: Guilford Press.
7 John C. Merrill (1997), Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media. New York: St. Martin's Press.
8 op. cit.
9 Louis A. Day (1997), Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
10 Kurt Luedtke, "The Twin Perils: Arrogance and Irrelevance." Speech delivered at annual meeting of American Newspaper Publishers Association, San Francisco, May 1982.
11 Jack Lule, op. cit., p. 199.
12 Stephen R. Knowlton (1997), Moral Reasoning for Journalists: Cases and Commentary. Westport, CT: Praeger.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.13,41-42.