MediaFile

Closing a tabloid won’t stop the cheating culture

By David Callahan
July 7, 2011

By David Callahan
The views expressed are his own.

The demise of the News of the World after a phone hacking scandal will not change a troubling truth about tabloid journalism – or business in general these days: Bad ethics can yield big financial rewards and such are the upsides of cheating that even honest professionals may feel they must bend the rules to compete.

Tabloid editors will surely think twice now before drawing on illegally obtained information. But other unethical practices – used by a range of print, broadcast, and online media businesses – will continue, like paying sources for dubious information (“cash for trash”) or fabricating juicy stories outright to boost circulation or ratings.

This sleaze machine is fueled not by the deviance of editors and producers but by rational incentives. The media business is brutal, with intense competition, impatient shareholders, and often razor-thin profit margins. Everyone in this world is under extreme pressure to perform and cutting ethical corners is one way to get an edge. The News of the World became Britain’s highest-circulation newspaper in large part by being less scrupulous than the competition. Cheating paid – at least until this week.

These dynamics are not unique to the media industry. All publicly-held companies are expected to show robust earnings every single quarter and while executive compensation has skyrocketed it has also become more tied to performance. With the sticks hitting harder and the carrots getting fatter, it should be no wonder that scandals have consumed so many industries – whether it’s corporations cooking their books or bankers lying about the toxicity of mortgage-backed securities or pharmaceutical executives authorizing the illegal “off-label” marketing of drugs.

When cheating pays, and few people are punished for breaking the rules, even those who want to be ethical may find that this isn’t so easy. If other tabloids are paying cash for trash in the hottest story of the moment, and you’re not, good luck with those circulation numbers – and getting that year-end bonus or even keeping your job. Many bank and mortgage executives during the real estate boom weren’t thrilled about embracing ethically dubious lending practices, but worried about losing market share to less scrupulous competitors if they didn’t.

A cheating culture feeds on itself as wrongdoing becomes normalized and sucks in more people. A truly appalling revelation – like a tabloid raising false hopes among the relatives of a murdered teen – can interrupt this cycle, but typically not for long. While Enron’s collapse in 2001 was a massive shock, the shenanigans around subprime mortgages started to spread before that company’s executives even got to trial. The closing of the News of the World is draconian, but even the summary execution of an entire paper is unlikely to lift tabloid journalism out of its gutter.

So what might disrupt the cheating culture in leading industries? Long term, we need to reform capitalism to temper the insidious mix of harsher bottom-line pressures and bigger financial rewards for winners – a sure formula for bad behavior. In the meantime, though, tough law enforcement action can deter cheating. Steroid use in Major League Baseball, for instance, has declined amid the prosecution of high-profile dopers like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Bolstering regulations and professional ethics can also make a difference. Big Pharma may have gotten a slap on the wrist for its illegal marketing practices, but there has been an impressive push in the medical profession to toughen the rules governing doctors’ ties with drugmakers. At the same time, a number of states have passed laws making it illegal for doctors to accept industry gifts.

Tabloid journalists may seem beyond hope. But new laws can curtail some of their worst abuses, as we’ve seen with California’s anti-paparazzi law. Indeed, the authorities are at last questioning and even arresting editors whom they suspect had knowledge of the crimes in this News case and others. Also, the media world writ large can try to exert more peer-pressure through professional associations and other levers of influence. And big advertisers can use the power of the purse to send a moral message, as we’ve seen in the last days of the News’ life.

Cheating to beat the competition and bolster profits may be rational today in media and other industries. But, with changes in incentives, that need not always be the case.

PHOTO: A woman walks out of the News International HQ building, in east London July 6, 2011. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Comments
8 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

A curious parallel to this story is the impact, and means, of social media. There is no doubt that it will have an impact, and perhaps be as ‘yellow’ as ‘News of the World’, or, for that matter a Super-Pac attack ad…

Posted by DLTooley | Report as abusive
 

I absolutely agree with the author of this article and what ever decisions are to to be taken by the authorities there is going to be others who may sleep through the nets.The reason is that is about money where there is plenty of money to be made cheating becomes rampant in every works of life.You do not have to read that much before detecting the false stories circulating in order to boost ratings.These dangerous precedents have to end.

Posted by Asaki | Report as abusive
 

Dead on David. A huge amount is at stake for the Murdoch machine and everything legally should be done to put him and his likes in the Dock.

He has been abusing innocent people for Decades and now the time has come to pay the Piper.

Posted by ghhugh39 | Report as abusive
 

I wonder how we can expect a shift toward ethical standards and practices when the purchasing public clearly loves the tabloids. They share responsibility. How do we go about convincing the public to stop buying trash tabloids, and to spend their money on ethical news sources?

That said, Murdoch will be fine. They’ll all walk away having learned the lesson of all criminals who escape punishment, “Next time, be more careful so you don’t get caugh.”

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

The correct word would be Violating. Cheating doesn’t fully describe what is going on. It’s far too soft and indicative of part of the problem.

The phone hacking and the other examples, as provided by the author, are all violations in a society increasingly conditioned to the escalation of anti-social actions of one towards another. These practices are part of a vicious cycle of increasing social and, eventual civil instability.

The author opens the path to this conclusion by his analysis of the consequence of an imbalance, even the abundance, of such chaos. He points out the increasing temptations and difficulties of the ethically responsible to remain competitive within this imbalance.

It’s not like violation is new to humanity. Our forebears have “been there, done that”. Digital and electronic technology isn’t the problem, it’s only the newest gadget, but one that removes physical restraints and tracks of theft or invasion of privacy. So, those whose personal programming is without internal controls, or conscience, do. What’s worse put a few of them together and they have a “bonding” experience. “But ma,” “every body does it.”

It was the realization of these consequences that stands behind the reason we have laws based upon social ethics in the first place. This sort of thing brings a whole new respect for those laws.

Posted by takeapill | Report as abusive
 

Well this is a non crime against the rich and famous, oh dear these pampered people dont like it when they are the victims, and not the aggressors, surely anyone knows mobile phones are not ‘safe’, with the many crimes and indignities committed by the ruling elite,against the British people a bit of phone hacking is the least of our worries….most people only talk rubbish on their phones anyway, if the threat of hacking would stop people using phones on buses and trains….HACK ON….HACK ON

Posted by ejm | Report as abusive
 

Well this is a non crime against the rich and famous, oh dear these pampered people dont like it when they are the victims, and not the aggressors, surely anyone knows mobile phones are not ‘safe’, with the many crimes and indignities committed by the ruling elite,against the British people a bit of phone hacking is the least of our worries….most people only talk rubbish on their phones anyway, if the threat of hacking would stop people using phones on buses and trains….HACK ON….HACK ON

Posted by ejm | Report as abusive
 

one thing that really amazes me,the metropolitan police are tut-tutting about the phone hacking…hang on havnt many of their members received large amounts of money in this sorry saga (allegedly )….perhaps they they might start by putting their own house in order.

Posted by ejm | Report as abusive
 

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