Column: Media must maintain standards

John Costa / The Bulletin /

Published Feb 17, 2013 at 04:00AM

Without question, we in the newspaper world face tough challenges.

Stories appear every day about the headwinds that newspaper organizations face in the developing world of online journalism.

The challenges that need to be addressed are real, but so are the opportunities.

More often than not, the skeptics of print journalism point to the amount of newspaper advertising moving online.

Often disregarded in these analyses is the amount of advertising remaining in print, which is huge.

That said, the advertising equation is just one force that has to be addressed.

There are other challenges, I believe, that are just as important, if not more so, to the future of newspapers.

They center on the credibility of the organization, which, to my mind, is the newspaper's greatest advantage over what passes for information in much of what the Web offers.

A recent story is interesting to consider in this light. It involves former President George W. Bush.

A hacker managed to break into the private emails of the former president and members of his family, securing personal messages, photos, even email addresses and phone numbers of extended family members, according to The Washington Post.

The website Smoking Gun, which is owned by Time Warner, posted some of the material, which had little or nothing to do with any public or official activity of the Bushes.

All of this raises a very good question: Is a public official entitled to a private life of any kind?

Or as the Post, which wrote of the issue without linking to the Bush material, said, “Are there any standards left? From TMZ's revelations about celebrities behaving badly to high school students' test scores popping up on a local online forum, the titillating, the taboo and the personal all seem to be fair game for someone.”

I think the Post made the right decision not to publish the link.

And the explanation offered by Smoking Gun reeks of convoluted self-justification.

William Bastone, the Smoking Gun's editor and co-founder, told the Post, “The nature of the hack was so extensive and extraordinary — considering that two presidents had their emails illegally accessed — that we clearly thought it was newsworthy. We decided to use a tiny portion of the material that was illustrative of the nature of the various incursions and their seriousness.”

Yes, I would agree, hacking into the personal emails of former presidents is a big deal and if illegal, as Bastone asserts, clearly newsworthy.

Write a descriptive story? Absolutely.

But throw in some of the material that is clearly invasive of privacy with no other news purpose? I can't get there and, thankfully, neither can a number of editors beyond the Post.

Even prominent people “enjoy some right of privacy,” Richard Wald, a professor at Columbia University's school of journalism and the former president of NBC News, told the Post.

“If the hack had revealed malefaction of a great nature, you'd say, 'Thank God they published it.' But if it's just (trivial), it injures the notion of civility,” he said.

If this kind of ”news” continues to expand as the competitive value of titillation intensifies, civility won't be the only casualty.

Our credibility and respect will be. And sooner or later, there will be a pushback.

What we will be able to get through the appropriate use of online journalism will be reduced and access will become more and more restricted.

As wrong as it is, much of the public doesn't differentiate the way the industry does.

As damaging and miscast as the notion may be, many people see the media institutions with high ethical standards existing in the same professional neighborhood as Smoking Gun.

And if we desert our higher ethical course, we'll confirm their view.