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False 'News' Should Be Treated as a Dangerous and Defective Product

02/27/2015 12:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

When a company releases a product to the market that is found to be dangerous, a recall is often a result. Sometimes lawsuits are filed, with the goal of seeking redress for lost lives, damaged property, etc. This is based on the notion that businesses are -- and ought to be held financially -- accountable for the damage done by the products that they produce.

If they are found to have done so deliberately (despite knowing of the problem) punitive damages are often leveled.

I have argued in the past that the principles of corporate responsibility apply to the for-profit corporations known under the umbrella of 'the media.' But how can this principle be applied when, the media is writing the 'first rough draft of history' in real time? How can we tell between an honest mistake, a failure to do the job correctly and outright lies and manipulation.

Reporting is a difficult business. That is why organizations like the National Press Club and Society of Professional Journalists have developed robust codes of ethics that define the principles of reporting and journalism. These include things like having multiple sources to verify information, clearly identifying what is 'fact' and what is 'opinion' and so forth. Despite these precautions, sometimes the media does get it wrong. Not through malfeasance, but simply because events -- and their interpretation -- are fluid.

In the era of journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, reporters were venerated for their powerful reporting as well as their accuracy. But today faith in the media to tell the story, and tell it correctly, without bias, remains low.

Recent media stories such as the exaggeration by Brian Williams that put himself into the thick of the action or Bill O'Reilly's claims to have been in a war zone when he was not have focused attention on examples where the reporter has clearly presented not only incorrect, but misleading, information.

In these instances, the transgressions seem to be inspired by ego and self-aggrandizement, rather than efforts to present false information. Indeed both war situations were real (although Mr. O'Reilly's recent efforts to 'explain' have resulted in not only tortured logic -- using the term 'war zone' to describe a violent protest more than a thousand miles from the actual 'war zone). But these are lies, and they must be held responsible for their outright 'lies' and misrepresentations. But in neither of these cases can a case be made for 'damages' because it would be hard to show that anyone was hurt by these actions (although it might be possible that the stories of their bravery helped their careers at the detriment of other, more honest, journalists).

The powerful influence of the media is established. Fear of having the early news influence the outcome of elections is why election returns from the East Coast are not reported until after the polls close in California (I guess voters in Alaska and Hawaii are apparently independent enough to not be swayed by knowing that their candidate is either 'winning' or 'losing.')

Stories about putative 'No-Go Zones' in France, and that the City of Birmingham in England being under Sharia law were met for the most part, with the contempt and derision that they deserved, but some people remain convinced that they were true and this contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment.

And that leads me to stories such as the re-edit of a protest In Baltimore, Maryland that turned a protester's demand for police officers to be held legally accountable for their actions into a (completely fabricated) story that they were inciting people to 'kill a cop' less than 48 hours after a deranged person drove from that city and gunned down two police officers in Brooklyn. If the media is held accountable for potentially influencing the course of presidential elections then what of the danger presented in this story? That not only damaged the reputation of the woman leading the chant, it potentially put other police officers' lives at risk.

We are all stakeholders in the information we receive. We are 'owed' -- but also must not accept anything less than -- fair, accurate, balanced reporting -- not that which panders to our fears, our political leanings, or even our patriotism (or any other criteria). Things labeled as news must be news, not opinion. Manipulative tactics -- such as carefully editing both the call and response of a protestor and the crowd -- cannot simply be attributed to 'bad judgment' or even 'bad journalism.' They are, at their most basic, deliberate efforts to knowingly foist a defective product on the public, without regard to the harm it does.

How can we continue to hold these businesses any less accountable than any other companies?

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