Imagine that you’re competing fiercely with someone – but there are no legal rules to keep the competition fair! All that you and the other competitors can hope for is that all of you will stick to certain norms of fairness. This hardly sounds like a comfortable situation. Yet, it is, arguably, the situation news outlets currently find themselves in. Such concerns motivate my recent paper, where I argue that we need to consider the role of competition for journalism ethics, not least because this helps understand the precarious role of social norms in journalism.
“Chasing the clicks”
In the online world, media outlets face stiff competition, not only with one another, but also with cat videos, social networks and other online content. While they experiment with different business models (with or without paywalls, with or without subscriptions or donations, etc.), they ultimately all need to attract sufficient numbers of viewers. But think about the ways in which human attention in an online environment functions: the briefer, the crasser, the flashier an item, the more likely it is to get attention. Hence, it is tempting for news outlets to prioritize sensationalist headlines over serious reporting. And because one’s competitors will do the same, there is a risk that more and more news outlets move in this direction. The consequences for the kind of sober, truth-oriented journalism that democracies so urgently need look dire.
To illustrate this point, consider the downward spiral of the harms that can be done when news outlets “frame” their pieces in more and more sensationalist ways. Such frames often draw on harmful (e.g., racist or sexist) stereotypes, and they often reinforce the competitive nature of politics over the search for compromise. Moreover, they dull the attention of audiences: they make everything a scandal, so that truly outrageous news, such as the abuse of political office, are more difficult to recognize as such. And lastly, sensationalist framing can overshadow the framing of political issues by political parties, replacing a logic of democratic competition with a logic of market competition.
An “ethics of competition” in journalism?
Journalism ethics has long discussed the responsibilities of journalists and the imperative not to abuse their power over public discourse. There are many norms that are meant to prevent specific harms, e.g., about how to report about suicides. But when it comes to collective harms – such as the lowering of journalistic standards – traditional journalism ethics has relatively little to say. Here it is useful to draw on concepts and arguments from business ethics. After all, a core question of business ethics is how to maintain ethical standards when agents stand in competition with one another.
When competitive pressures in markets lead to harmful collective outcomes in markets, often the best option is regulation, which creates a level playing field for all competitors. This is why we need minimum wage legislation, health and safety standards, and environmental rules. But here’s the catch: when it comes to the media, many forms of regulation would be rather problematic. They would run up against the freedom of the press, and therefore rightly raise worries about censorship. After all, a key function of the media in democracies is to fulfil a watchdog function vis-à-vis political actors. So to regulate news outlets for civility is a potentially dangerous idea.
Joseph Heath has argued that in market situations in which legal regulation cannot secure efficient outcomes, market participants themselves should ensure that no ethical abuses happen. Similarly, one might argue that individual journalists and media companies should stick to a voluntary “ethics of sportsmanship”: compete hard but compete fairly! Whether or not such a strategy can be successful, however, depends quite massively on the audience. To put it metaphorically: if the audience cheers for fouls instead of booing them, then news outlets that try to play fair will have a hard time staying in business.
Social norms and their risks
So, are there other ways to support journalistic standards in the face of the stiff competition of the online world? One factor that can help to stabilize standards in the face of competition are social norms, as we do in fact find them in many sports: norms that individuals accept as part of their professional identity and that are supported by peer recognition. Doesn’t that seem like a good candidate for journalism as well? Yes and no. On the one hand, social norms can be a powerful counterweight to competitive pressures. On the other hand, whenever one speaks of “social norms,” those familiar with debates about free speech will remember John Stuart Mill’s powerful warnings against vigilantism and self-censorship. Journalism needs mavericks, and social norms can easily stifle the kind of vivid debate in the media that democracies need.
This precarious role of social norms within journalism can explain some of the vicious debates about “political correctness” in the media. Being politically incorrect can be a cheap way of attracting attention, getting a head start over competitors, without taking into account the harm one thereby does – or so the defenders of political correctness hold. If the social norms around political correctness become too strict, this can stifle valuable forms of debate – or so its critics say.
If my arguments are correct, then this is exactly the line of contestation we can expect, given the situation of journalists (and players in the attention economy more broadly speaking) in the fierce online competition they currently face. And we cannot expect a once-and-for-all solution. Instead, democracies need an ongoing, reflective debate about journalistic standards and social norms in the media and in public discourse. This is burdensome, but it’s a price worth paying for the absence of legal regulation and the presence of competitive dynamics. Remaining aware of its necessity can maybe help to lead these debates in less vitriolic ways.