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Responsible & Irresponsible Reporting In Action – Past, Present & Future of Journalism

December 5, 2009

In this photo released by Cambridge University is an extract from a 1933 diary by Gareth Jones, who was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the late 1920's. The diaries of a British reporter who risked his reputation to expose the horrors of Stalin's murderous famine in Ukraine are to go on display on Friday Nov. 13, 2009. Welsh journalist Gareth Jones snuck into Ukraine in March of 1933, at the height of an artificial famine engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Millions were starving to death as the Soviet secret police emptied the countryside of grain and livestock, and Jones' reporting was one of first attempts to bring the disaster to the world's attention. Part of the text reads: "In the Ukraine. A little later. I crossed the border from Great Russia into the Ukraine. Everywhere I talked to peasants who walked past they all had the same story; There is no bread, we haven't had bread for over 2 months, a lot are dying. (AP Photo / Cambridge University / ho)

A democratic press comprises of a group of socially responsible journalists who ensure objectivity and neutrality in news reporting through thick and thin. This article is part I of a series that examines the values that frame news reporting during natural disasters, wars, elections, political upheavals, and analyzes the forces that shape the landscape of story-telling. Does the social responsibility of journalism serve its full definition or is it being redefined during these events? How is the social responsibility of journalists changing in the face of the digital future, as journalism is being nichified? As we journey through several contexts, the battle between responsible verses irresponsible reporting begins.

The Weather Channel reporting on Hurricane Katrina

The Weather Channel’s coverage on Hurricane Katrina spoke lengths about the channel’s marketing model and its deviation from socially responsible reporting. During the hurricane coverage, despite the channel’s unvarying claims on being on top of their game, there was a clear disjunction between their claims and the reality. While, the reporters urged people to seek shelter in the Louisiana Superdome, they failed to verify their facts. On August 30th 2005, the Louisiana Superdome that was raved by reporters for being a safe haven began to fill up with water and was eventually unable to withstand the catastrophe. In a race to fill air time, the Weather Channel skipped on the investigative reporting that was essential to establish whether or not the structure deemed as an emergency shelter was previously tested for the task. Hence, it would not be an understatement to state that the press clearly caused deaths in the Hurricane Katrina episode.

ABC News coverage of 9/11

From a natural disaster to a man-made catastrophe, September 11th, 2001 is a day in the history that can never be erased; neither can the World Trade Center wall paper donned by a majority of television news broadcasters behind their breaking news coverage on this date be forgotten. On the morning of September 11th, television was once again able to control the human race following the attacks on the World Trade Center. From NBC’s Today Show to CNN’s Situation Room, media amplified every bit of information knowing that every household was tuned in to the television to find out more. In the midst of television becoming central to the broadcast of the national crisis, network stations like ABC employed the symbolic significance of the event to keep audience tuned in. Such that, ABC news featured the world trade center blazing in fire as a wallpaper for the entire length of their 12 hours of breaking news coverage. The extent of the repetition was such that even reporters, like ABC News anchor Peter Jennings mistakenly referred to the World Trade Center as the Pentagon. The use of the wall papering strategy was driven by the network’s marketing strategy to fill up air time and fool audience into believing that there was constant motion, whereas the incident had long happened in the morning.

The breaking news coverage of the September 11 terrorism attacks unveiled several roles assumed by journalists, including that of experts and social commentators to report any and every rumor associated with the breaking news. In the advent of a breaking news, journalists have to produce instantaneous and continuous news streams and Barnett’s study in This Just In … How National TV News Handled the Breaking ‘Live’ Coverage of September 11, analyzes how traditional reporting routines and prescribed norms are often taken over by the strength of the journalists’ ideological influences, “In the absence of credible sources, journalists fill their shoes…begin to draw on their own personal ideologies…to fill in the gaps of the missing information.” (Barnett, pg. 692)

Hence it does not come as a surprise when Barnett’s research analysis concludes that during the first five hours of the September 11th terrorism attacks, journalists reported unconfirmed news or rumors for a total of 84 times and at least 12 of these rumors were proven false in the end. From CNN anchors Aaron Browns and Jeff Greenfield to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and reporter Pat Dawson, journalists even acknowledged their own violations of journalistic conventions by offering retraction statements. Here’s a short glimpse of the fragmentary reporting style, in the words of NBC reporter, Pat Dawson, “We try not to exaggerate very much…yet it’s hard not to exaggerate”, and NBC anchor, Tow Brokaw, “we’ll just ask that you stay with us…there’s going to be a lot of speculation” (Barnet, pg. 698). Hence, a journalist’s role is somewhat redefined during a crisis situation due to the conditions surrounding a breaking news event, which warrants speedy news generation at the price of lapses in objective news gathering. In that sense, during a breaking news event, Journalists divorce from neutrality and often tap into their ideologies to become sources for other journalists, such that together they can fill in air time and ensure consistent viewership.

To be continued…

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