We're facing a crisis in our nation, and I'm not talking about the economy (which is indeed grim), or our health care system (even more grim), or Kanye West's lack of manners (annoyingly grim). I'm talking about the state of journalism, that once-great bastion of integrity crumbling around us. A recent Pew Poll entitled "Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two-Decade Low" states that "Just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate.... In 1985, 55% said news stories were accurate."
The media world is in a free fall. The drop in combined ad pages and digital buys for newspapers was the biggest since the Depression. According to TNS Media Intelligence, magazine ad pages for 2008 were the lowest full-year counts of the decade, with 2009 year-to-date numbers already 20 percent below that. The thinner a newspaper or magazine is -- due to reduced revenue from advertising dollars -- the less editorial content because of the standard ad-to-editorial ratio, and the less money there is to support investigative journalism. With the rush for ratings dominating broadcast content, what used to be news has become rants from one side or the other that appeal to the basest emotions.
The publishing world is teetering as it tries to find its relevance in the digital landscape. But it is the fate of journalism -- no matter who serves it up -- that keeps me up at night. Since the advent of the Internet -- more recently compounded by blogging -- everyone can be a published voice. Any cowardly, anonymous anger-monger can have an audience of thousands. That doesn't make them a journalist any more than my throwing an onion and a few carrots into a pot of boiling water makes me Julia Child.
Somewhere in this new century, it was forgotten that journalism was once considered a noble profession, one that strove to uphold the ideals spelled out by the Society of Professional Journalists in its code of ethics. Today, it has become increasingly apparent that too many television and online "writers" fail to realize what William Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach stated so eloquently back in 1989, before the first blog was ever dreamed of: "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."
Today's media pundits seem more interested in seeking sensationalism than the truth. The desire to be the first to report a story now outweighs the desire to maintain integrity by performing even the most basic research of the facts.
Where there was once a hard and fast standard that had to be met before an article was published, online readers often are unaware of such standards. Sensationalist stories are now "retweeted" before many take the time to read, contemplate, and research the content. The pixel has proved more powerful than the pen, giving authors the ability to attract and amass readership -- and perceived credibility -- with a rapidity that should frighten any discerning reader.
Many of these bloggers/writers and pundits have big-name corporations (and even previous administrations) backing their less-than-scholarly works, allowing them to work under the guise of professional journalists. Worst of all, many readers are so quick to believe or be tickled by the negativity of just about any piece of content that comes through their inbox that they're apt to disseminate it to their friends before they can verify credibility.
With so many voices to choose from, who can we trust?
The voice I've chosen to turn to is that of NPR. With a reputation for some of the finest journalism in the country, the nonprofit organization is renowned for its unbiased stance -- to the point that it's been accused of being both conservative and liberal. The fact that it both satisfies and angers both sides is a true indication of its journalistic integrity.
This is why it saddened me to learn that less than 9 percent of National Public Radio's audience actually pays to support it. Contrary to popular belief, the organization is not a government entity, meaning it is not backed by federal funding. I urge all of you -- especially those listeners who have listened for free all these years -- to put your money where your ear is by making a donation. If you can't do that, at least honor its ideals by doing your own fact-checking before retweeting/reposting/adding to Digg, etc.
And I call upon the bloggers, web writers, and other partisan tastemakers to look to NPR as their touchstone for integrity. Before you click that publish button, ask yourself if your post upholds the standards stated above by the Society of Professional Journalists, or that of CyberJournalist.net's Bloggers" Code of Ethics (which was based upon that of SPJ).
If you need a shorter credo to adhere to, you can use as a guidepost the words of Joseph Pulitzer, which ring as true today as they did a century ago. "Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."
Lynda Resnick is the author of the bestselling marketing book Rubies in the Orchard. You can read Lynda's business advice in her columns "Ruby Tuesday" and "Ask Lynda," as well as ask your own business questions on her personal website.