One of the unfortunate aftereffects of being a reporter is that I’m actually interested by journalistic ethics flaps. Actually, I’ve kind of gone beyond interested, because the journalistic ethics code is one of those bizarre things that makes less sense the more you think about it. Still, I can get dragged in on occasion, particularly when the issue involves news outlets I use.
So when, during the course of driving to get some lunch today, I caught this report about KUOW (Puget Sound’s public radio service!) dumping Cliff Mass from his regular gig forecasting the weather on Weekday, I ended up sitting in my car with the engine off waiting for the story to finish. It was a nice callback to my days in public-service journalism — that rare profession held in high regard by the people who actually do it and by virtually no one else.
Weirdly, I think the Seattle Times did a better job of describing the issue than did KUOW. Basically, Mass — who views himself as a Carl Saganesque popularizer of science — used his spot on Weekday to take issue with news coverage of the University of Washington (where he works), which annoyed Scher and led to this brilliant example of Northwestern passive-aggression:
Mass: “Steve, can I make a comment about that UW admissions for a second?”
Scher: “Well, you are violating the rules of you being a UW weather forecaster, Cliff, and people will now be writing in to yell at you.”
Mass: “OK, well, I’m not just a weather forecaster but I just wanted to mention — “
The first rule of being a weather forecaster is, only talk about being a weather forecaster. (The second rule of being a weather forecaster is, only talk about being a weather forecaster.)
For the record, I think Scher’s about half right — he’s well within his rights to want a weatherman who only talks about weather. I also think a weekly science segment would probably serve a much greater public good than would a five-minute weather forecast, but I guess when I get my own radio show I’ll keep that in mind. Besides, the fact that Mass is on the University of Washington’s payroll gives us basically the definition of a conflict of interest. In last week’s case, a Seattle Times employee was sitting in the studio this time, so the talk wasn’t exactly one-sided.
On the other hand, the whole point of a show like Weekday is to give people a forum to discuss issues of local interest. If people who don’t agree with Cliff Mass about something want to call in and yell at him, they can. And if the Seattle Times ran a flawed story about the UW and you’ve got a Times employee and a UW professor on the show every week, you should be able to find a way to talk about the story without firing one of them.
I’m reasonably sure this is one of those fights that comes down to personality — Mass was difficult to work with, or Scher wanted his show run just so, and a couple people who got along better could have figured out a solution. Which is honestly why I think journalistic ethics are usually kind of a shell game.
The bizarre thing about journalism is that “Journalist” is a title held in tremendously high esteem by journalists and in tremendously low esteem by everyone else, which was tremendously frustrating for me when I could call myself a proper reporter. And the rules of journalistic etiquette can lead you to some pretty counterintuitive conclusions.
I remember when NPR ran a story about the suicide of the D.C. madam a few years back, some listeners objected to their including details of her death on the grounds that it could inadvertently encourage future suicides. So they brought in an ethicist to discuss the issue, and the first thing they did was…play the offending clip again. To provide context, see. That’s the sort of thing that makes people doubt that you’re taking their concerns seriously (as their first caller pointed out, before they cut him off). But it’s also an important part of covering a controversy to make sure everybody’s on the same page about what’s going on.
Journalism ethics is a mess of conflicting interests, and enforcing intellectual consistency is either impossible or a really bad idea. But it’s also appealing as a sort of defense against people who don’t like your story, which are the only people journalists will reliably hear from. This is a mirage — people don’t care if you have an intellectually consistent justification for your actions, they care whether that thing you did makes sense to them — but it’s an appealing one. The people who get into journalism typically want to explain things, so we’re attracted to logic and structure and reason, even when it’s all in our heads.