I got into an interesting discussion on journalistic integrity regarding the reporting on Google founder Sergey Brin's impending divorce and I thought I'd layout my position here for an open discussion.
The story was initially reported by Liz Gannes of www.AllthingsD.com, got picked up by Techmeme and found its way to my eyes through a report by Rob Hof at Forbes that was in my Facebook feed. I commented that it was not something I consider newsworthy and even Rob seemed apologetic about doing the piece. (Note: I have known Rob professionally for many years and consider him a preeminent business and tech journalist).
My comment was followed by several folks who defended the story as being newsworthy. So I felt I had to actually read the story I didn't want to read and found this in Rob's piece:
"While some reports have tried to draw business issues from the situation, a reported prenuptial agreement means there probably won’t be much if any impact on Google if they ultimately divorce. So the main reason it’s of interest is that it comes as a shock to people in Silicon Valley and the tech community, where Brin and Wojcicki are quite well-known."
This was similar to Gannes report and it's the reason that respected publications like AllthingsD should have immediately ignored the story.
The first tenet of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is "Seek truth and report it." Speculation is not truth. That the divorce might affect the Google stock was speculation. The additional report that Brin was involved romantically with another employee was also speculation. Speculation belongs in gossip columns and internet publications that claim to be journalistic. As soon as the meat of a story turns out to be only personal and speculative, good journalists and publications should walk away
So this coverage violates the first tenet of journalism ethics.
The second tenet of the code is "Minimize harm." Once this story broke, Google's stock plummeted. Many people lost money. Most would call that harm. If it had not been reported, no harm would have been done, at least by journalists.
So this story violates the second tenet.
The third tenet is "Act independently." Rob reported the story because other journalist were reporting it. They were reporting it because Techmeme was reporting it. That's not a good enough reason to violate the first two tenets, in my book. The old adage, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you need to jump off a bridge," comes to mind. Acting independently means thinking it through, not following the crowd.
So this story violates the third ethical tenet.
The fourth and final tenet is "Be accountable." The reason I received from several defenders of the story was that it was engaging. The Techmeme coverage was trending. It brings eyeballs to the site. That means it was financially advantageous for publications to cover it. Follow the money.
To me that's a grand slam, violating all four tenets.
Why am I so incensed about this? Right now journalists have he lowest trust rating in recorded history. People don't believe they have integrity. I know that isn't the case but it's hard to defend my tribe when stuff like this happens.
Good content is about building trust. Content strategies in corporations fail because they don't understand that you just can't push out marketing collateral and think that it's fooling the market. If journalists fall into the trap of pushing out content the same as corporations, we are all screwed.
When media was controlled by a few corporations, this might be acceptable. but the market has more opportunities to turn off corporate messages... and journalists, than ever before. We need to understand that.
The Footwasher Media webinar on this subject has two more sessions on September 12 and 26. Signup here if you want to find out how to make your content trustworthy and engaging, save your budget and make all your marketing efforts work better.