Those two principals are easy targets—largely because of their very “paternalistic” and “fusty” wording—and Shafer does a nice job picking them apart. But when it comes to examining modern ethics, and to the case in hand, I don’t know that Shafer is as convincing. He writes:
Prestigious newspapers can and still do ignore these stories, but they do so at the risk of becoming irrelevant to their readers. Cable news was once slave to the editorial agenda of the top newspapers, most notably the New York Times and the Washington Post. Today, the big dailies must follow not just the cable news but cable comedians like Stewart and Colbert, plus hundreds of websites, lest they appear less-well-informed about the seedy and the repugnant aspects of our culture than their readers.
The question of whether the mainstream press should chase stories like Weinergate may be a hot topic of debate at the Shorenstein Center and the Poynter Institute, but it’s really been a settled issue for some time. A newspaper can’t stay relevant by ignoring what its readers know and are interested in, and newspapers desperately need to be more relevant.
It’s true that to a large extent, the big dailies are now followers rather than leaders, and grappling with that change—witness former Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander’s mea culpa after his paper ignored the James O’Keefe/ACORN story back in late 2009. But that doesn’t mean they should abandon principles in order to run hamster-like on the news cycle, wherever the web and cable lead them. It’s not from the web and cable that we should necessarily be taking our ethical cues.
And the principle in question with the Weiner case is not the easy-to-rip-apart drawing room sentiments of Meyer—that we should avoid dirty talk, getting down into the gutter, or sensationalism in and of itself. Reporting on the Ensign affair was a no-brainer, for example. The principal here is how much space to devote to a story that has been shrouded in dubiousness since day one. The facts remain foggy, murky, muddy, etc. Ethical questions around covering “Weinergate” concern reportorial slipperiness and personal motivations more than sensation.
The ethical and practical considerations—whether to cover it at all, how much coverage to give it, and what kind of coverage that will be—are legitimate topics of debate from Poynter to Nieman to CJR to any news desk. The usual questions come up around this. By covering what appears to be a manufactured scandal, dailies—which still have more respect than most other media and thus far more power to legitimize a story than most web outlets, cable, or Comedy Central—can extend the lifespan of a dubious story and reinforce its legitimacy by mere virtue of a headline. By not covering, they risk missing the story. Thus they need to think seriously and judiciously about the weighting of their coverage. In the new media age that Shafer speaks of, when stories do spread rapidly across a range of platforms, ungoverned or steered by fusty old ethical considerations, this is ever more important.
Which is not to say that Shafer’s wrong to argue that papers should cover Weiner. They should. And (proportional) resources should be assigned to getting to the truth of the case, or the untruth. The degree of sensation should be irrelevant, too—cotton briefs or full monty, it’s our job to take a peek. But we should at the very least take a thoughtful look and think long and hard (sorry, but had to) about what we are looking for and how we’re going to present what we find. That’s an ethical pause in reporting that no amount of technological or methodological change in our profession should erase.