A warning to all journalists

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

Words of caution often come from unlikely places.

These words come from Anne Applebaum, a former British and now American journalist.

Applebaum is also  an historian who won the Pulitzer Prize 20 years ago for Gulag: A History. The gulag, as most of us know, was the prison system for suspected traitors in the Stalinist Soviet Union.

She has worked at The Economist, The Washington Post and now The Atlantic magazine.

In a recent issue of The Atlantic she wrote that “We are drowning in unethically sourced information. 

“The stuff that once shocked and scandalized us is now all over the internet, available for free. 

“X, Facebook, Telegram, and YouTube have taken anger, emotion, and partisanship to levels no newspaper will ever match. AI-driven social-media campaigns will go even further. The tabloidization of everything is all around us already. That market is saturated.”

Twenty years of my own newspaper career were spent on daily newspapers. As city editor of one tabloid, I had no trouble leading with a murder or some other lurid crime. 

It was what attracted our readers.

We also published explosive exposes including where the money for the colorful mayor’s expensive new mansion was coming from. But in every expose we practiced ethical journalism, not phone hacking, bugging, blackmail, police bribery, paying tell-tale sources and other dirty tricks. 

If you had information someone wanted kept secret, we would listen and check out what  you told us before publishing.

We embraced that ethical concept when we became community digital and print newspaper owners. 

We published information some community leaders did not want exposed. But we resisted the urge to publish some questionable stories that our TV and newspaper competitors exploited.   

We won many awards for investigative reporting but never paid a dime to anyone.

TV and movies such as The Front Page and Absence of Malice explore questionable practices. Temptations to bend ethical rules are always there.

Like many of us who read The SCPA Bulletin, my family and I were conservative community newspaper owners, editors and publishers, now retired.

We read publications that Applebaum was associated with not because we agree with their politics. We are interested in the arguments of those on the other end of the political spectrum. 

In this particular case, we agree with Applebaum about the future of the newspapers as we publish them online and for home delivery today.

“I don’t have a formula for the future of newspapers and won’t presume to propose one,” Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic

Newspapers, she believes, need to strive for a higher-quality, more reliable and trustworthy journalism – not the trashy journalism of some U.S. and British tabloids.

She’s right. That goes for community newspapers, too. Our readers’ and advertisers’ trust is more important than a few scandalous headlines.

Retired newspaper and magazine editor and owner Jerry Bellune is author of “The Art of Compelling Writing” Volumes 1 and 2.

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