Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Deseret News and the Ethics of Reporting

I have been involved in the journalism field for almost three decades. Among other things, I spent two years as a sports reporter for a community newspaper (1982-1985); I graduated from San Diego State University with a journalism degree (1985); and I spent 17 years teaching journalism to high school students, watching my private school students win a number of awards and compete well with much larger public schools.

Thus, it is with dismay that I have watched the print journalism industry go to pot over the past decade. With advertising dollars radically shifting to other media outlets, especially to those related to the Internet, newspapers have been letting go of staff members by the dozens. Pink slips for qualified reporters are commonplace. My friend worked for Los Angeles’ second largest daily for many years; he was laid off two years ago. Thus, I have advised my daughter, a very gifted writer and the editor in chief last year for the high school newspaper that I advised, to not choose journalism as a major. It’s not the field it once was.

At the end of August, the Deseret News—a daily Salt Lake City newspaper run by Denver-based Media One and owned by the Mormon Church—cut 84 positions at the paper and combined the rest of the staff with its KSL-television and news department. This new model is survival-mode, a way to keep the newspaper printing while cutting costs to make up for the decrease in advertising revenue.

The day after the cuts, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Peg McEntee made some disturbing observations. Now, mind you, the Salt Lake Tribune is also run by Media One, which according to its website “oversees advertising, printing, circulation and business functions of Salt Lake City's daily newspapers.” Referring to a story on the Deseret News website on an agreement made by the LDS Church and Jewish leaders regarding Holocaust victims who were being baptized for the dead, McEntee wrote: “What got my attention was the byline on the story—Michael Purdy: Special to the Deseret News. At least at the time, about 10:30 a.m., there was no indication that Purdy is a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints….it was striking that in one of its first breaking-news articles the newspaper failed to identify the ‘reporter’ as a member of the faith’s public affairs department. The story bore a New York dateline, which in standard journalism practice means the writer was there. Purdy was in Salt Lake City. Also, the photograph with the story was taken several years ago near the Family History Library, but the caption didn’t mention that.” (Salt Lake Tribune, Sept 2, 2010, p. B2).

With apparent tongue in cheek, McEntee called this a “rookie mistake” committed by the new leaders of the paper. While the author’s name was eventually removed, the words ”Purdy is in the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” was finally added in by the end of the day.  To me, this still isn’t kosher, but I guess I shouldn’t expect much from a newspaper that produces a weekly filler called The Mormon Times.  And it’s obvious that the reporters before this time were told to report the news in a positive-PR way for their church. In the same way, I’m sure no conservative reporter for the New York Times lasts long either.

If you’re wanting to be taken seriously as a journalistic newspaper—one where you report the 5 Ws and serve as an objective source of news to your readership—you can’t have PR people doing the writing.  Now I know that American journalism lost its innocence long ago, and we can just throw out names like Pulitzer, Hearst, Cronkite (“that’s the way it was”), and even Murdock to show this to be true. Today, you can know what to expect before tuning in to MSNBC, CNN, or Fox. Obviously, it depends on who owns the outlet, and I bemoan the slant on journalism that we see. As I was instructed in college, the reader should never be able to figure out the reporter’s personal opinion for any news piece. We were told that objectivity was vital and the facts reigned supreme. Ahh, but for a perfect world!

So, while it’s no surprise that the media is controlled by those who produce it, imagine if it was discovered that Obama’s publicists were responsible for writing the front page news stories for The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. (Some may even suspect this already occurs!).  I would hope the public would freak if they found out this was true.  As for the LDS Church public relations department serving as ghost writers for the recently laid-off Deseret News reporters, let’s just say that my old journalism professors would have never approved of such a marriage. And neither do I.

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