Tabloid news run amok

On Thursday, media-mogul Rupert Murdoch closed the British tabloid News of the World following allegations that his popular paper paid police officers for news tips and hacked the mobile phones of a teenage murder victim and relatives of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We asked Walter Robinson, distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to assess the fallout from the scandal.

Hacking mobile phones and paying police officers for tips appear to be shortcuts to practicing sound investigative journalism. Why would a news organization resort to such dubious tactics?
Plain and simple, these illegal practices were encouraged to beat the competition in London’s sleazy, bottom-feeding tabloid news culture.

How does this scandal affect the legacy of Murdoch, who is chairman and CEO of News Corporation, the world’s second largest media conglomerate? Did he make the correct decision by shutting down News of the World?
Murdoch’s legacy has nothing to do with journalism, and everything to do with making money and using his clout to influence government policy on three continents. Even before this scandal, his news properties have never paid much homage to the truth when a good headline might sell copies.

As for shutting down the News of the World, it’s a ruse. I think there’s little doubt that it will not be long before the paper’s weekday twin, the Sun, starts publishing on Sunday.

Do journalists at other news organizations resort to unethical tactics of the same variety? How will these allegations affect newsroom protocol at other publications?
It remains to be seen whether other British tabloids engaged in any of the same behavior. One hopes not. I think there is a far different, and much higher standard at major American news organizations — except, perhaps, at the Murdoch-owned New York Post, some supermarket tabloids and at some websites. All major American newspapers have codes of ethics that prohibit reporters from doing anything illegal to obtain information. Beyond that, however, we have ethical guidelines that forbid misrepresentation by reporters. To translate that into simple language, I’ve always told reporters not to do anything in gathering the news that would upset their mothers or that would embarrass the papers if we had to spell out our reporting steps for our readers.