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Home > Publications > Quill > From the Editor — Economic prospects and ethical reflections



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Friday, December 14, 2001
From the Editor — Economic prospects and ethical reflections

Journalists and media organizations face challenging decisions in covering America’s war on terrorism.

Jeff Mohl

It’s a very interesting time to watch American journalism.

Before Sept. 11, it was clear that things weren’t going so well for the profession. The struggling economy had hit media companies particularly hard, and announcements of layoffs, cutbacks and hiring freezes were being made almost daily. The debate between profits and product was coming to a head, with more and more journalists turning toward the cynical view that the bottom line had become more important than pursuit of the truth. Our relationship with the public, which has been growing weaker for years, was strained even more by botched election calls, the quest for autopsy photos and the obsession over a Washington, D.C., intern.

But after the Pentagon was hit and the World Trade Center towers collapsed, everything seemed to change. Concerns over profits were thrown out the window as newspapers ran ad-free extra editions and networks cancelled their usual programming for days to run commercial-free news coverage. Journalists suddenly provided a direct link from Ground Zero to the rest of the nation, and complaints about the media were forgotten as people watched the scenes unfold on television.

We’re now starting to see how temporary many of these changes were. As coverage has moved from the attacks to the longer story of the war on terrorism, public support for the media has begun to fade. A recent Gallup poll showed a 57 percent disapproval rating for the way the news media has handled the war on terrorism. National security issues have pitted journalists against the government, and the public is increasingly favoring secrecy over openness.

At the same time, the economics of the news business are starting to resurface. Though news organizations have increased the amount that they’re investing in newsgathering, the advertising market has not improved since before the attacks. The expenses of covering a foreign war will soon begin to take their toll; the Wall Street Journal reported in mid-November that, at the rate CNN is spending money to cover the war, the news network will have gone through its annual news budget in six months. Layoffs are beginning again at several newspapers, and the job outlook is more dismal than ever.

On Page 10, read about the dramatic changes that have taken place in the journalism job market over the past decade. The hiring scene is different than it was even two years ago, and many editors suggest that job seekers change their expectations to match the current market. Part of those changes may be to find contentment in your current position; on Page 13, read about some ways to make the best of staying put.

Another change very apparent since Sept. 11 is the media’s connection to the United States itself. Despite our attempts to claim the role of independent observers, news outlets have consistently identified with Americans throughout the past months. Nearly every broadcast station – and many newspapers – incorporated American flags into their coverage. More than two months after the attacks, the major news networks still tout this symbol in most of their coverage. There was a great deal of debate over whether anchors should wear memorial ribbons or pins on the air immediately after the attacks.

Though some of these are little more than surface issues, they point to a broader debate – just how “American” should we be? Our primary audience is American. The news media is an American institution, and we operate under American freedoms. Is it a conflict of interest or a negative bias to associate ourselves with the United States – or is it just a more honest approach? On Page 18, we look at the role of patriotism and the news.

Defining our role as an “American” press is just one of many ethical questions that will arise as the news media covers the war on terrorism. On Page 14, we look at some of those isseus – and whether journalists should examine their work differently when American lives could depend on the judgment calls they make.

The fallout from Sept. 11 will continue to create interesting and challenging questions for American journalists. In this issue – as well as future issues, I imagine – we’ll try to cover how our profession is answering those questions.


Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.

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