From the events of the world in the past few weeks, it's impossible to conclude that "media ethics" is anything more than an oxymoron.
First, we had British journalists hacking into the phone of a 13-year-old murder victim to get exclusive "scoops." They were inept, of course, and ended up deleting some of her voicemails. The family noticed and thought that their daughter was still alive and accessing her messages. Of course the other newspapers are having a heyday about the paper's downfall, with close-ups of the Murdochs and the News of the World head honchos...but not terribly much about the actual victims (Source/Example).
Then, Stateside, we had the hullaballoo over Casey Anthony. News anchors might has well have been chanting "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" months before the trial, publishing reams about how Anthony was a party girl, a bad mother, a druggie blah blah blah. So then, when the prosecution failed to show murder one beyond a reasonable doubt (they didn't even show cause of death, for heaven's sake), a jury of her peers untainted by the media angle acquitted her. Now a sixty-year-old juror has fled the state because mindless mobs are "protesting" outside her house (source/example), and hordes online are posting about how jurors shouldn't be random Florida trash, but better educated rich white people who will return a just Guilty verdict no matter what the evidence. Hooray for the Land of the Free.
Locally, there's been a tiresome frenzy over Lauren Spierer, a 90-pound blonde who disappeared while running around with her friends at 4:30 in the morning. She was so wasted that she forgot her cell phone and her shoes at the bar where she was drinking all night, underage. Her friends were so wasted that none of them remember anything about the day before. Yet the papers are clinging to every false lead, every neighbor who retains a lawyer, every tear that drops from her mother's eyes. It hasn't reached the torches and pitchforks stage (yet), but there are delightful comments online about how the police should be forcing confessions from these kids, that it's a big cover-up and the friends should be raped in retaliation, etc. etc. Anyone who dares to say that she's probably in a ditch somewhere because she made stupid decisions is verbally lynched for "blaming the victim"...if she even was a victim. So far, there's no evidence of any crime committed, but let's waterboard them all just in case, right?
Now, yesterday morning when I was driving to my internship, I was treated to a ten-minute infomercial for weight loss pills. The local radio station for young folks has this deal with a local vendor called "Complete Nutrition," which has very little to do with nutrition and a whole lot to do with potentially dangerous drugs. In the past few weeks I've heard not only traditional commercials voiced by self-proclaimed "doctors," but tidbits from show hosts between songs talking about how they've been on their products for two weeks and have lost, like, fifteen pounds. This morning's infomercial was in the guise of a down-home interview with a local business owner. He and the host chatted casually and earnestly about how great Complete Nutrition is.
The premise of Complete Nutrition? It "mimics ephedrine, but without all the side-effects." The host actually said, "Ephedrine was popular, like you said, in the '90s and early 2000s, but it was taken off the shelves because the side effects were too dangerous. But you've taken the side effects out!"
Here's the thing about ephedrine: its intended effect is the side effect. It's an amphetamine-like stimulant; it hypes up your system. So your heart rate and blood pressure and all those goodies skyrocket. Have you ever had asthma or bronchitis, and they make you breathe through that contraption to clear your lungs out? And then for half an hour afterwards you can't hold your hand still or think clearly? That's ephedrine.
So if a drug is intended to mimic ephedrine, it should do the same thing. Which means the "side effects" are the same, and people could be taking these things and going jogging in 90 degree weather and dropping dead on the sidewalk. By "taking the side effects out," they might mean they decreased the dosage, but there's no magic that would make an inherently dangerous pill safe and sound.
What do all these stories have in common? Money. Newspapers earn money by printing scandalous headlines. TV stations make money by leading lynch mobs that have to tune in every hour to hear an unending loop of anti-Anthony sermons. Printing yet more uninformative interviews with Lauren's emotional roommates/family/tangential acquaintances will not make her corpse surface faster; their only purpose is to keep people paying subscriptions. And the radio station makes money by taking it from the Mom and Pop owners of Complete Nutrition hawking stimulants to impressionable college students.
Now don't get me wrong; I love money. I spend the majority of my waking hours trying to get it. But there are certain things decent human beings don't do. The Britons did not have to hack into voicemails to get a good story that people would read. The radio station did not have to sign on with Complete Nutrition. They could have stuck with Holiday World, local restaurants and Marsh groceries. It's not an equal opportunity issue, because they're a private station. If the KKK rang up with an offer of $100,000 for a prime-time spot, I'm sure they'd tell them to go hang (themselves, of course, in case they get confused). So there's really no legitimate reason for the station to be peddling snake oil at 9am, noon and 5 like a happy, wholesome neighborhood meth house.
There was a time, I'm sure, when journalism was a respectable profession. Now, it seems, they just exist to squeeze out a dime. I'm just waiting for the day that somebody does drop dead from Complete Nutrition, and then all the local newspapers latch on gleefully to the fact that the radio station was pushing it. Then they'll program their mobs to forget about Casey Anthony and Lauren Spierer to flock over to the radio station and throw rotten eggs at the interns just for working there.