Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethical Challenges Facing Newspapers

by Miriam Schulman

Jerry Ceppos, Center fellow in media ethics and former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, met in August with a group of editors from major publications in Vietnam to discuss ethical challenges facing newspapers.

Ceppos outlined five areas of concern:

  • Declining readership and advertising revenues
  • The rise of “unreliable” media, particularly online
  • Freedom of the press
  • Government secrecy
  • Entertainment vs. news

In the United States, newspaper readership has been falling steadily, and along with it, advertising dollars. Ceppos pointed to a recent announcement that ad volume at the Wall Street Journal was down 21 percent over the same quarter last year.

Many attribute these phenomena to an increase in online readership, not only of newspapers but also of blogs and other media. While many newspapers have online versions, the price they command for advertising is lower than similar ads in print by a factor of as much as 10. Ceppos and his Vietnamese visitors concurred that finding a way to boost online revenues was a major issue, although the editors from Vietnam indicated that print is still strong in their country, especially outside the major cities.

To combat falling revenues, many newspapers are cutting costs, both by shrinking the paper and downsizing the news staff. The result, said Ceppos, is a “vicious circle.” “All in all,” he observed, “fewer readers and advertisers are getting less news from not such good papers.”

The ethical question, as he put it, is “How much profit can you responsibly squeeze out of a declining industry?”

The rise of online media, Ceppos said, presents another challenge: reliability. While newspapers have well-developed fact checking and editorial structures, many online media do not. Yet readers, especially young people, often don’t understand the difference, Ceppos said. They will “look at the New York Times online and Wikipedia and think they are equally credible, which is absolutely not true.”

Often, online media, unlike newspapers, represent only one point of view. To Ceppos, that raises the question of fairness. How much should readers be told about the medium’s biases?

Press freedom was another of Ceppos’ ethical concerns. He cited the 2005 jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal her sources. “That didn’t used to happen in the United States,” said Ceppos, who predicted tougher legal times for reporters trying to protect the identity of those who give them information.

A related issue Ceppos raised was government secrecy. He pointed to pre-Iraq War allegations by the Bush administration that Iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction. Yet the administration argued that they could not reveal evidence of this project because it would compromise national security. Further, Ceppos said that this administration has been secretive about “everything related to national security since September 11, 2001,” which has been a challenge for reporters trying to give readers the information they need to participate effectively in the political process.

Xuyen Khac Doan, managing editor of Saigon Economic Times, suggested that the perspective of U.S. journalists in the early phases of the war was affected by the fact that they were embedded with army units, and thus could not see what was happening on a broader level. He expressed surprise that after it became obvious that Saddam did not have WMD, “we have not seen any review or retrospection from U.S. newspapers.” Perhaps, he said, this undermined readers’ trust in newspapers and was a factor in their turning to other media.

Finally, Ceppos and his Vietnamese guests talked about the trend in newspapers and other media away from news and toward entertainment. At bottom, they defined the issue as choosing between giving readers the information they need to be good citizens and giving them the entertainment they seem to want.

My Thi Do, editor-in-chief of Khan Quang Do, a children’s magazine, said that her publishing group was producing a special paper for teens, but over a 6-month period, its readership declined from 100,000 to 80,000. The publication went on line, added more entertainment news, and regained its readership.

Suong Phong Thai offered another example from The Thao, the sports daily where she is editor-in-chief. The publication, she said, has a history of excellent reporting and commentary on sports events. But readers, she observed, have become less interested in the editorial content and more interested in betting. “In that situation,” she said, “we have to concentrate on betting. As a professional writer, I’m not happy about it, but if we don’t change, we won’t continue to exist.”

To Ceppos, the issue is weighing how much attention is paid to serious news and how much to fluff. “I worry about how many reporters are covering Paris Hilton versus how many are covering Iraq. There’s no question that entertainment has to be covered. It’s the balance I worry about.”

Miriam Schulman is Center director of communications.

August 2007

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