Tom Goldstein, a former reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, explains how the media works, dividing his book into sections detailing journalists’ problems, techniques, and ethical standards.
Contemporary court actions challenging questionable practices are highlighted: CBS “60 Minutes” versus General William Westmoreland; TIME magazine versus General Ariel Sharon; and R. Foster Winans and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The author also explores the role of journalists as witnesses--even abettors--of the crimes that they report.
According to Goldstein, unannounced investigative visits, with cameras rolling and shutters clicking, are popular although often unethical methods of reporting. Just as police are prohibited from unauthorized searches, journalists have no right to invade privacy.
Masquerading journalists (posing as police officers, ambulance drivers, social workers, Medicaid recipients, lawyers, or prisoners) are generally considered unnecessary by Goldstein. Some masquerades become sting operations which occasionally net for the media prize-winning stories and for the police award-winning convictions. Often, however, masquerades add little information to that which ordinary research would have developed.
Goldstein laments that journalism does not have a universal code of ethics, as do law and medicine. The lack of licensing and of enforceable standards for journalists casts journalism as an occupation, rather than a profession.
Plagiarism and irresponsible fictionalization of news stories are increasingly common threats to the media. Although the fictionalization of stories has a legitimate function in journalism, today it is too often abused. Goldstein criticizes editors for not demanding enough documentation and newspapers for being reluctant to hire ombudsmen to ensure accuracy.
Goldstein uses selected cases to argue that journalists compromise often unwritten ethical standards to get stories, particularly Pulitzer Prize-winning stories. His advice for journalists is simple: Follow the ethical codes which govern most other professions.