Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Stop paying for bad news

One hears with increasing frequency of some new revelation about an organisation which casts doubt on its integrity and undermines trust in it to the extent that it is no longer able to function properly, either because the people within it no longer trust their colleagues or because society as a whole  no longer trusts the organisation.

For example, if a secret service X is devoted to protecting a parliamentary democracy from destruction by terrorists it must operate on a principle of total secrecy and total trust. It cannot possibly perform its role without keeping secret  the way it operates, the information it has obtained about those wishing to destroy society and the specific measures it has in place to infiltrate hostile groups, intercept their communications or destroy their operations. At the same time all the staff and operatives of X must be able to trust one another – in particular, not to divulge secrets.

But the society which X is trying to protect is a democracy with a free press. Suppose some journalists become so motivated by the need for career advancement that they actively seek out transgressions of the internal rules or overall objectives of X. A cost is incurred for every divulgence, true or false: enemies of the state learn something about X and its methods, or the employees suffer diminished trust in each other, which reduces the effectiveness of operations.

Consider a national medical service Y (e.g. the UK’s National Health Service) financed by taxation. It needs its staff to be devoted to the well being of all its patients and to trust each other. If a doctor or nurse or porter or cleaner or administrator reveals to a journalist some kind of misdemeanour or bad practice, no matter how rare and unrepresentative, the organisation’s culture is affected and the public becomes less willing to sanction the allocation of tax revenue. Moreover, the confidence of patients is undermined, which in itself can undermine medical treatment.

A multinational company Z has branches in several countries. A worker in one country airs grievances to a journalist and this causes a widespread belief that all employees are badly treated, which causes many previously satisfied employees to feel aggrieved. Potential customers then boycott products from Z, its profits fall and workers are made redundant and trust between employers and employees is undermined.

Whenever the member of any organisation divulges something negative about it there is a human cost over and above the actual problem reported.  And society is in a sense made up of organisations, so that society as a whole can be badly affected by over-reporting of negative news about the organisations within it. The negative effects are particularly marked when problems in one organisation lead to suspicion that similar organisations have the same problem.

Does this mean one should not report a misdemeanour to the press? No. But what I think is wrong is that the person reporting it should be financially rewarded by the media. If the injustice is so important that its divulgence outweighs in importance the negative impact on the organisation and society in general, then it should be reported regardless of any financial incentive. In general, if an incentive is needed it is, I would argue, questionable whether it should be fed to the public as circulation fodder for a newspaper or to boost the ratings of a TV news show.

 Ultimately, if it becomes normal for pedlars of bad news to be rewarded it could be that people start inventing it or distorting events within their employing organisation. In this situation readers would not trust the stories of bad practices and the journalists themselves would no longer profit from bad news they had paid for.

The job of a journalist is to proactively unearth news and report it in a balanced and fair way, not to offer incentives to deliver it and in so doing damage the society in which he or she operates.

 Journalist should stop paying for bad news. There may be execptions but in general bringing a genuine injustice to the attention of society should be its own reward.


Author, the novel 2077 AD (this is being revised and is not currently available).

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