April 10, 2006

Can you do gossip journalism with ethical standards?

It’s a good question. Ethics don’t grow in a vacuum. They are rooted in a community and grow in an individual. In journalism that community is usually the newsroom, where good and bad values are nurtured. Some journalists learn early on that the most important value is being first with the story. Others might treasure winning contests. But most newsrooms teach values like getting it right, telling the truth and serving the audience.

So when Daniel Trotta of Reuters asked me if it was possible to do an ethical gossip column, I had to think. The problem with some gossip columns, as we are now finding out, is they don’t have clearly articulated standards. Turns out the Page Six staff at the NY Post took in a few expensive freebies. Most of the news items in gossip columns are attributed to anonymous sources — that’s if they’re attributed at all. As for journalistic purpose, a gossip column is about…rumors and speculation, not exactly the foundation of great journalism.

The practices of many gossip columnists are so far beyond the practice of ethical journalism that it seems unnatural to try to apply standards. Sure, Page Six is to gossip columns what The New York Times is to journalism. Yet, will there be some big transformation? Will gossip columnists hold a conference to discuss reforming their ways? Will the editor of Page Six lose his job? Well, that might happen. But all that other stuff is unlikely.

Gossip makes a lot of money. Circulation at US Weekly and People Magaznie continues to grow. The consumer appetite for gossip appears to be insatiable.  This never-ending cycle of supply and demand has led to a new, sophisticated dance between celebrities and journalists.

There doesn’t seem to be a way to do gossip journalism without an unhealthy dependency on anonymous sources, cutting secret deals with publicists and getting a lot of things flat out wrong. Yet some very respectable newsrooms, known for their solid journalism, are unlikely to give up their gossips columns. Short of forgoing all gossip columns, what’s an editor to do?

  • Write a clever editor’s note: Dear reader, Except for this gossip column, this newsroom has very high ethical standards. We tell only the truth and we tell you how we know it’s the truth, everywhere but here (and sometimes in the travel section…and the car reviews.)
  • Apply the newsroom standards, especially the one on anonymous sources, to the gossip column. Maybe try it for just a week and see if there would even be a column to print.
  • Forgo gossip. Just quit, cold turkey. You might lose a few readers. But you’ll gain some respect.

What option would you pick, if you were editor? In the meantime, Romenesko (formerly known as Media Gossip) is having a banner day, and I have to catch up. You can read an FAQ about Romenesko here, by the way, and one about Poynter publishing standards here.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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