There’s been talk of creating a state “Journalism Ethics Board” to regulate the media in Georgia. It didn’t happen this legislative session, but it might in 2020. If that idea sounds good to you, I’d make this point, because here’s what I will get from it — other journalists too: “You print that and I’ll file a complaint with the ethics board.” How many Georgia public officials doing things they’re ashamed of will reply to legitimate questioning with this threat to the livelihood of a reporter instead of an answer to their question? It will be a leverage tool. And such legislation would be in direct conflict with the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting freedom of the press.
But you feel bad about “the media,” right? And you do feel there are actual lapses in ethics. Well, so do I? (I also see a lot of good work, too.) But I don’t see our information dystopia — where too much dubious information comes at us too fast from too many sources — simply as some left/right tug of war over truth. No, I see it as a business problem. We are witnessing economic incentives rewarding the wrong things. Nothing will change unless this structure changes. And the government moving into “surrender-your-notes” mode will only move us toward something authoritarian.
I’m not sharing anything new by noting that the business models have broken down for traditional media, with too many organizations folding or carrying a small fraction of their former staff. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google and YouTube are the new goliaths, but are they the “media,” too? I’d say absolutely. They are our biggest media now, exponentially dwarfing any news outlet’s importance. These new monopolies make money in ways that reward tempers and nastiness, not logic and cooperation. Likewise, a number of media businesses seek to stay alive financially by targeting niche´ audiences with specific ideological mindsets. Consumers also have less and less appetite for information that doesn’t conform to their own ideological slant. All of these things have sent us as a nation into some hate wasteland, with social media algorithms reinforcing our already established biases and never challenging them. Too many in this country eat a media diet of one menu item, “hate soup.” And this whole paragraph is a total cliché now, isn’t it? Bemoaning this fact seems old hat. We say it constantly. Most everyone sees it, but none of us know how to stop it.
I say all this, because I can’t hear anything now about “the media” without thinking about this big-picture, broken mess of an information sharing system that is modern culture. For me, every discussion of journalism reminds me that financial incentives now reward our worst impulses, while muting deeper, more nuanced thought. This is a national emergency. It truly is.
Hearing about House Bill 374, the Georgia media regulation bill, which failed this year, but could come back up, throws me into this sort of thinking. I don’t think HB 374 was in response to this existential crisis in terms of news and our rapidly declining sense of common truth. No, when reading the bill, I just think someone got ticked at a particular reporter and wanted to legislate something punitive to that person and their profession.
The bill says that media will be required to give, upon request and free of charge, audio and video files of interviews to the person interviewed. As a matter of principle, I’d be cuffed before I would hand over my hand-written notes. That’s my effort to explain things to myself. That’s my property. (And no one else would be able to decipher it anyway.) But audio files? Honestly, I’ll do that now without any legislative demand. If someone wants to fact check their quotes against what I print, I don’t have a problem with that, provided I have the file. And there’s the rub for me. If I record something, I do it on my phone and generally only keep the files for a short time. Sometimes I’ll transfer files to my computer if I think I’ll need to refer to it later. But I don’t always do that. I record a lot of stuff, so I pick and choose what I’m going to archive. All that said, I do think there could be abuse of this requirement in a harassment-type way by certain people. For instance, I don’t like the idea that the government would require me to keep records and perhaps be punished by law if I delete some conversation from my iPhone when I need space. Nah, man. If someone is nervous about an interview, then they just need to simultaneously record it on their phone. Problem solved. No Congressional action needed.
The bill also says the ethics board would be composed of nine people selected by a one-time “appointment board,” which would disband after selecting the nine members. The ethics board would be composed of the following: “Three members shall be editors, three members shall be news producers, one member shall be a retired professor of journalism who preferably taught journalism ethics, and two members shall be those who write or broadcast exclusively on websites.”
The board would come up with a “canon of ethics” for Georgia journalists to follow, develop an accreditation process for journalists to follow, then hear complaints regarding alleged ethical violations by journalists. Punishment of violations of ethics could include, “but not be limited to, loss or suspension of accreditation, probation, public reprimand and private reprimand.”
The ethics board would not receive a salary. And here’s the real kicker to me on this bill. According to the bill, the ethics board would “accept and manage grants, donations, gifts and other monetary awards for the fulfillment of its duties and responsibilities from private and public sources.”
So, public officials and private companies that are the subject of journalistic investigations could make financial contributions to the ethics board in charge of potentially punishing journalists who investigate those same officials and companies?
Hmmm. That’s exactly what would be set up. Not saying it would happen, but it sure would open the door for it. How is that ethical?
Anyway, perhaps all this is a moot point. Maybe HB 374 gets legs in 2020. Maybe it doesn’t.
For sure, there is plenty of medicine needed in the news industry and this society in regards to how we share and consume information. That’s really obvious. It is one of the biggest issues of our time. But I don’t think moving toward state-run media in Georgia is the aspirin we need. But yes, I surely need an aspirin. And if you read this far, you surely do, too. I feel ethically bound to apologize and offer you a Bayer or Advil. Just don’t have the government make me give you one.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.