Demanding journalistic ethics from Wyoming newspapers

Fair and balanced reporting of the news helps people learn the necessary facts and make day to day decisions in an informed manner.

Unfair and unbalanced reporting harms people by leading them to make decisions without access either to accurate information, or to a fair representation of all points of view.

In Evanston, Casper and most Wyoming towns, citizens are subjected to a news monopoly. If their newspaper does not fairly and accurately inform its readership of the news they need, those citizens are harmed substantially, and the community is worse off as a result.

For these reasons, the fourth estate, must maintain high ethical standards. Without them, they abuse their public trust.

Back in the day when we had only three television networks (for you youngsters, they were ABC, NBC, and CBS) there was a heightened sense of ethical integrity among the news producers. We can argue about how well they lived up to their own ethical standards, but it is inarguable that they wanted us to believe they did.

As cable television came on the scene, two things changed. First, the advent of 24/7 news required the creation of more and more news content. Stories that were merely local news, and that would never have made the national news on the three major networks, suddenly became huge news stories.

Who can forget watching O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco driving down an L.A. Freeway followed by a posse of police cars? Interesting? Sure. Newsworthy? Only as a carnival attraction.

This glut of irrelevant content led to a second change. How does a cable show gain a following when everybody is watching all the same irrelevant content? Rupert Murdock answered by tailoring the news for a particular audience.

Between CNN and Fox, let’s not get into the argument of who became partisan first. The point is that partisan news is now a reality — and has been for quite some time. Other players have since entered the fray and created ever more partisan news.

The gloves have come off. The strict ethical line between reporting the facts and advocating for a world-view has been erased. Advocacy journalism has replaced objective reporting. While the networks each still claim to be the paragon of journalism, nobody really believes it. Rather, cable news has become just as partisan as the parties themselves.

Before the advent of cable news, we could all watch the same three networks without serious argument. The only rule of thumb was that it was impolite to talk politics in public. Now, cable news has become so politicized that we have a new rule of thumb. It is impolite to watch your favorite cable news channel in public.

We have become tribalized, and cable news has been a huge contributing factor. That is a bad thing.

But what is worse is when the degradation of journalistic standards on cable news bleeds over into local news. At least there is an economic explanation for why cable news has gone tribal. They are each trying to make a profit and so are seeking out a niche of news consumers.

But in markets that have only one newspaper, there is no profit in partisan attacks on the subscriber-base, especially when that party is 70 percent to 90 percent of the voting public. Such newspapers should be seeking the broadest possible respect. Editors and publicists alike have an economic interest in scrupulously cultivating the public’s trust.

This means journalistic ethics. Ethics are not laws. They are not enforceable in a court of law, nor should they be. The freedom of speech is too valuable of an asset to run the risk of shutting it down by judges and politicians.

Journalistic ethics have been developed by journalists themselves for their own protection. They are guidelines on how to earn and keep the public’s trust. They have been learned in the school of hard knocks by journalists who violated them and lost the respect of their readership.

Journalists once learned to apply strict rules to themselves so that their own party politics would be subordinated to the journalistic task. But, alas, those days are over. Today it’s “monkey see, monkey do.”

Journalistic ethics in cable news has fallen so far that cable news can no longer be consumed in mixed company. In just the same way, we are witnessing our own local newspapers devolve into the same partisan screeds.

Take, for example, a pair of articles recently printed in the Casper Star-Tribune. The first one was written by Arno Rosenfeld. The title begins, “Wyoming GOP county chair shares article...” “Shares article,” it says, referring to Facebook. The entire article is an expose of the Facebook feed of a Campbell County woman who was recently appointed to fill a vacancy in the county Republican Party.

The article takes her to task for the crime of hitting the “share” button after reading an article from the National Review written by Lloyd Marcus, a nationally syndicated columnist. As is obvious from the title, the Casper Star is intent on using the opportunity to tar and feather the Wyoming GOP.

That is, of course, their prerogative. If the editors of the Casper Star want to use their print-monopoly to advance partisan politics at the expense of a housewife whom they deem to be a “public figure,” that’s their business. But it’s bad for business. They have squandered any remaining legitimacy they might claim as a non-partisan news-source for the citizens of Wyoming.

They have abused their public trust. If you doubt me on that point, try this thought experiment. Imagine if the Casper Star had published a front-page article critiquing the Facebook page of Sheila McGuire, the Uinta County Democrat chair, or Karl Allred, the Republican chair. That would be the local equivalent, and it would be outrageous.

On a Facebook forum, I asked what would happen if every county chair in Wyoming had a letter to the editor written about their own Facebook feed. Fellow Christians rebuked me for suggesting something unethical. They were right.

Such exposes would be unethical as letters to the editor, much less as front-page stories. The editors of the Casper Star Tribune ought to be ashamed of themselves. They have sunk to a new low in journalistic ethics.

The Monday after their partisan screed filled the front page, Arno Rosenfeld, the author, announced that he was no longer employed by the Star Tribune. This gave me the stirrings of hope that they had seen their ethical lapse and were taking corrective action.

But alas, no announcement confirmed this thought. Rather, the following Sunday, the Star Tribune editorial board doubled down on their bullying tactics. Mrs. Kissack was again castigated as a “public figure” who said, “something inaccurate.” (Public figures must be mindful of their words, May 20, 2018).

In the inaccuracy-laced editorial that followed, her particular inaccuracy was never cited, only (mis)characterized. Nevertheless, they ended by advising her: “keep your opinions to yourself.” They apparently missed the irony of opining that certain opinions shouldn’t be allowed.

Let’s be clear. The only people who can apply journalistic ethics are the journalists themselves. The rest of us can sense when they are broken, but we can do nothing about it when journalists break trust with us. Most people vote with their feet.

Newspapers, which once thrived, are dying. I don’t think this is a result of cable news. I think it is a result of newspapers imitating cable news. If local journalists are smart, they will relearn the ethical lessons that made them thrive. In so doing, they could also become a unifying force in our communities, rather than creating further division.

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