When I was just beginning college and considering a career in journalism, the almost universal motto of the profession was print the truth. I did not go into journalism but my younger brother did, and we had many interesting and enlightening conversations about this motto. When he left the profession, one of the main reasons was the devolution of journalistic ethics he had witnessed first-hand. In my brother’s words, “It was no longer about the truth—it was about the money.” He told me of pressure on him to sensationalize his stories and to look for angles that would stir up controversy. A favorite piece of advice given often by one of his editors was “look for an old wound and pick at the scab.” He was even given training in how to incite anger, frustration, and controversy when interviewing people.
Apparently there came a point in time when decision makers in journalism decided the truth does not sell. When the truth is not your standard, it follows logically that facts don’t matter. Under pressure to remain profitable, competitive, and relevant, many journalists—print and electronic—have jettisoned any semblance of the old journalistic ethic of print the truth and replaced it with a new motto: ignore the facts and create a narrative that will stir up the biases of your audience. When journalists apply this more recent motto, if there is no story they can just create one.
The advent of 24-hour news channels coupled with the Internet has magnified the competitive pressure and, in turn, the unethical practices that are rotting the soul of journalism as a profession. In today’s we-have-to-get-the-story-first news environment reporters may as well be novelists and storytellers. They certainly are not journalists. This is especially the case with the electronic media. Where journalists once prided themselves on getting the story right, their contemporaries are more concerned with getting the story on the air, and the facts be damned. This is why so many so-called breakings stories on the news these days have a making-it-up-as-we-go feel to them.
Even worse than the media’s disregard for the facts when reporting the news is their tendency to report on stories in ways that comport with their preconceived notions and political biases. What they include in a news story and what they don’t is determined by their preconceived ideas concerning the narrative. It is the narrative that rules in the news today, not the facts. Media outlets that lean to the left—which is most of them—will advance a narrative that is anti-business, anti-America, anti-authority, and anti-conservative values. For the mainstream media, events such as those in Ferguson are just another opportunity to advance the cause of liberal orthodoxy.
This adherence to a preconceived narrative is important because the way a story is told can make all the difference. This is why the mainstream media could sit back and watch the business district of Ferguson looted, plundered, and burned to the ground as if this was a perfectly acceptable response to the death of Michael Brown. It is also why the mainstream media could, with a straight face, portray looters as “protestors” rather than what they really were: criminals. The narrative in Ferguson can be summarized in these words: Poor, innocent, unarmed teenager just minding his own business is callously shot and killed by an abusive, over-zealous police officer who hates black people. Facts that did not support this narrative were edited out or twisted and distorted to the point that they were no longer recognizable.
Coverage by the mainstream media of events in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent grand jury decision illustrate what has happened to journalism in America. Media outlets covering the events in Ferguson not only failed to report the facts, they did not even attempt too. Journalistic restraint—get the facts before reporting—did not exist in Ferguson, nor does it exist any longer in the mainstream media on any story. Instead, the mainstream media helped instigate, intensify, and perpetuate the criminal turmoil that occurred in that beleaguered town. What is even worse is that mainstream media outlets spun their nefarious narrative in a malicious, knowing, and purposeful way. They had a preconceived, politically biased agenda and used their reporting of events in Ferguson to advance that agenda.
Writing about the shameful lack of journalistic ethics in the coverage of the Ferguson debacle, Bret Stephens (THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, December 2, 2014) commented: “…the same could be said about other recent media sensations, Ferguson most of all. The killing of Michael Brown was many things, but for the media it was largely an opportunity to confirm an existing narrative, this one about trigger-happy cops, institutionalized racial disparities and the fate of young black men caught in between.” The key word in Stephens’ statement is “narrative.” Contemporary journalists have become writers and commentators of a fictional narrative that has nothing to do with facts but that serves two overriding purposes: 1) Advance the biased liberal agenda they favor at the expense of truth, and 2) Sensationalize the story in ways that will boost ratings and ensure relevance in a hyper-competitive market.
On the subject of the self-serving narrative of contemporary journalists, Bret Stephens wrote: “That narrative, also conforming to pre-existing biases, overwhelmed what ought to have been the only question worth answering: Was Darren Wilson justified in shooting Brown? If the media had stuck to answering that, the damage inflicted on the rest of Ferguson—not to mention all the squalid racial hucksterism that went with it—could have been avoided.” It could have indeed. This is why I believe the bill for rebuilding the business district in Ferguson should be sent to the leftwing media outlets that helped instigate the riots, looting, and other destructive behavior that occurred there.