“Chinese Wall”

Journalism, 30 Years Later

Tim McGuire, who teaches journalism ethics and on the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, recently asked some journalists about today’s business, compared to 30 years ago. Some excerpts:

One big change, for sure, is that no newspaper editor could say as you did to me in the mid 1990’s, “The truth is, it’s not really news until we (the big, major newspaper) print it.” That, of course, was before the blogosphere.

…As a whole, newspapering is still about finding stuff out and telling everybody else, and doing it ethically and in ways that are engaging and meaningful. …Newspapering is, and let’s hope will always be, about bringing the truth to light.

–Pam Fine, University of Kansas journalism professor


We have a far shorter time period to deliberate. Quite frankly, we sometimes are rendered moot by twitter and blogs that move at hyperspeed written by reporters that might or might not be accurate.

–Arnie Robbins, St. Louis Post Dispatch editor


I look at the sizes of the staffs at the papers where I worked and in some newsrooms, maybe the majority, you can hear the echoes of what used to be coming from the empty desks where journalists used to sit. And you simply cannot do more with less, and the push to do so only diminishes the quality of what gets done

–Gregory Favre, Distinguished Fellow of the Poynter Institute


Increasingly, reporters rely too much on digital communication instead of one-on-one interviews and in the process miss the opportunities for follow-up or the emotional response that can be drawn from personal contact. Sources, especially the powerful ones who are advised by public relations consultants, have figured this out, along with the fact that shrinking staffs have left some reporters time-constrained. That’s allowed those sources more opportunities to try to shape the message. I’ve even spoken with some folks who have said their newspapers publish their press releases verbatim with no calls, no checking for accuracy.

The push to be first online  hasn’t been totally a good thing; too many errors have been made and some of today’s journalists just shrug and say that’s part of today’s deal, unconcerned, apparently that the false facts, once reported, may live on forever in the Internet world.  There has been a definite erosion in standards; accuracy, while still important, has given ground to immediacy. Journalists can tweet falsehoods and other will pick up the information, spreading it far and wide.

In 1982, the separation between advertisers and editorial was more defined, almost absolute. Now that invisible wall is gone and while editors are still the guardians of standards, the protectors of the public’s right to know, they also are now marketers and collaborators with the advertising and circulation departments.

–Rick Rodriguez, faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


News organizations continue to perform the same fundamental functions — gathering, shaping and sharing news — but in increasingly and radically different ways. –—Len Downie, former editor, The Washington Post

[All emphases added]

Publisher Kills Story?

There are two “Chinese Walls” of which I’m suspicious.  One is the wall that supposedly stands between the analyst side and the investment bank side of many Wall St. firms.  The idea that analysts will be objective knowing their company holds major stakes in companies is, I’m pretty confident, pure fiction.  Working with start-ups as they go public or seek venture capital, I’ve seen first hand behavior that just isn’t kosher.  To be fair, part of that opinion is colored by my contention that you can’t trust Wall Streeters as far as you can throw them.

There is another wall I’m not as certain about, but again, I have my doubts.  A story in yesterday’s Washington Post begins with the lead:

On one point, there is no dispute: [Post Publisher] Katharine Weymouth did not like the subject of a Washington Post Magazine story that was headed toward publication and the piece wound up being killed.

Howard Kurtz’s story provides little comfort that a divide hasn’t been breached in a story about a quadriplegic that was  planned for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine.

Weymouth said Monday night that any impact she had was "completely inadvertent, because I would never interfere in an editorial decision and I had no intention of interfering." She said that she had not even read [author Matt] Mendelsohn’s story, but that she had "used it as an example" with editors "of the kind of fare we should be moving away from."

"Katharine didn’t kill my piece," Mendelsohn said in an interview Monday. "But unfortunately, an offhand comment by Katharine might have set the stage for the piece to get killed. . . . Something she said perhaps created a climate for somebody down the chain to think that’s what Katharine wanted to happen."

…Marcus Brauchli, The Post’s executive editor, called the sequence of events "an unfortunate coincidence" but said that the publisher, who runs the business side of the newspaper, did not interfere with what is clearly a newsroom decision.

Other Post editors denied that Weymouth killed the story.  But the idea that publishers’ don’t impact a newspaper’s stories is ludicrous.  Of course, that’s to be expected.  If you’re paying the bills you want a newspaper you can be proud of. 

But the wall isn’t violated by a publisher yelling across it to the editors, “Stop the presses until I approve.”  It’s by remarks made during soirees – or even salons – by publishers that give the editors marching orders.  When is that editorial interference is debatable.  But the wall is certainly not impregnable.

Update: Two more reports about this issue – by Slate and by the Washington City Paper.

The latter had this comment by editor Brauchli:  “Newspapers spend way too much time explaining themselves.”

Isn’t that what they ask everyone else to do?