Thomas Cooper, a professor of Media Ethics at Emerson College, is the author of Between The Summits: What Americans Think About Media Ethics, in which he analyzes public perception of the news industry, and how it has adapted over the course of recent history.
Cooper’s research found that public perception of the news industry has been declining in recent time. According to Meyer (1987, p. 182.), between 1976 to 1983, those who found a “great deal” of confidence in the press dropped from +11 to -11 over the course of those seven years. Even more recent research found that “Americans reporting ‘great’ confidence in ‘news reports on TV’ slipped from 55% in 1988 to 25% in 1993. In newspapers, those having great confidence fell from 50% to 20%. In 2006, the ASNE report Anonymous Sources: Pathways and Pitfalls found that 60% of Americans believe news organizations to be politically biased. That number is up 7% from 53% two years prior.
Research has also found that ethical issues vary depending on the medium in which content in presented. For example, polls were taken in both 1993 and 2005, asking audiences “why are TV entertainment shows worse than five years ago?” The top responses in both polls, “despite the changing show times and programming”, were “too much sex” and “too much violence”.
For television news, questions of ethical integrity have been raised over the practices of Fareed Zakaria, the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. Zakaria also writes for The Washington Post and is the editor of Newsweek International and the editor-at-large of Time. Two anonymous media watchdogs, who run under the name Our Bad Media, have accused Zakaria of serial plagiarism. The authors of Our Bad Media have found over three-dozen examples in which the CNN host has “lifted passages” for use of his books, columns, and his television show.
The majority of examples citied by Our Bad Media have been catergorized as “patch writing”—“using material generated by someone else, without attribution, but rewritten slightly so one cannot call it verbatim copying.” Two journalism experts have also reviewed the reports, Robert Dreschel, from the University of Wisconsin, and Kelly McBride, the vice president from academic programs of the Poynter Institute. Both agree that Zakaria plagiarized.
This is also not Zakaria’s first instance of plagiarism. In 2012, Zakaria was suspended by CNN and Time for plagiarizing sections of another writer’s article about gun control. In 2009, Zakaria was accused of plagiarizing sections from Atlantic magazine’s Jeffery Goldberg.
Strangely, this current case of unethical journalistic behavior has fallen on deaf ears in the industry. CNN has stood by their host, Zakaria has denied the claims, and little public outcry has come of his most recent scandal.
Five randomly selected, anonymous interviews have been conducted to give their opinion on the reports by Our Bad Media, and how it will impact Zakaria’s career. Each interviewee was asked to read the Our Bad Media report, and in a brief interview, give their opinion on the findings of the report.
Four of the five interviewees believed that what Zakaria was in fact plagiarism, and violated the code of ethics for journalists, and should be fired for his actions. One interviewee “found it appalling”, saying, “Zakaria violated the integrity of the CNN network and any other news outlet he has plagiarized on.” Another interviewee was disappointed, but not surprised, saying “We no longer live in a open news world; we live in a news oligarchy. I hope people can start to realize this and simply not tune into phony news sources like CNN. Examples such as Zakaria’s are proof enough that things need to change.” There was a single outlier to the majority, saying “It seems fairly clear that Zakaria plagiarized by public definition. Should he have been fired? That falls under legality and policy issues, which is secular from ethics.”
I think what Zakaria did was wrong and he should be fired for it. It also concerns me that CNN has not fired him. But I do believe there to be this almost seamless transition into saying “Mainstream media is biased. They are unethical. And therefore bad.” I do not believe these large news organizations to be inherently evil or have any negative desires for their reporting. I hear far too often from college students how modern media is “so unethical” and is controlled by big business. While that is rooted in some truth, it has also become a popular catch phrase only being said because everyone else is saying it. I still very much trust this idea of “mainstream media”. I trust damn near everything written under the New York Times title while Bill Keller was the executive editor (and I still do today). Just go read his conversation with Glen Greenwald and tell me that man doesn’t care about every single word printed in his newspaper. There is a tremendous amount of pride for the journalists who write for these institutions. And many of them uphold the ethical behavior we expect out of journalists. So to make a blanket statement like “I don’t trust mainstream media” is unfair to those who do their jobs well, and who do their jobs responsibly. Cooper also found that not all American’s believed the news industry to be corrupted by poor morality. While the majority of American’s do distrust mainstream media, there is still high-quality journalism being done, and is still fulfilling the necessities of the public, and keeping citizens informed of their world.
Byers, D. (2014). The wrongs of Fareed Zakaria. Retrieved September 14, 2014, from http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2014/09/fareed-zakaria-plagiarized-195579.html
Cooper, T. (2008). Between the Summits: What Americans Think About Media Ethics.Journal Of Mass Media Ethics, 23(1), 15-27. doi:10.1080/08900520701753106