Cheap solutions are not necessarily the best solutions especially when the problem trying to be solved is mired in the complexity of the human condition. I refer to all of these shenanigans going on with News Corp.

The general population has a right to be angry about what has been going on. However the rash of arrests, finger pointing, and blame is not showing leadership in solving the root cause of the problem. All these tactics are doing is to confound one problem with another.

Regardless of who knew what – the surface problem is the journalistic ethics which found it okay to violate individual personal privacy under the guise of the public’s right to know.  This really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that reads the daily news with an eye towards tearing down good people and who are only human. No one can stand up to the type of scrutiny that tabloid press puts on people. They take the private lives of individuals and then use every method at their disposal to “get the shot” – whether that means renting helicopters to invade weddings, or rummaging through someone’s garbage, or hacking someone’s voicemail.

This isn’t the root problem however. The root problem is a social culture that finds this type of tabloid news reporting to not only be mandatory, but rewards those organizations that can dig up the best dirt with a financial win fall in advertisers, subscribers, and ongoing rights.

The problem is us.

We demanded it and didn’t bother to ask what lines were being crossed so long as the news had that latest, greatest tidbit about Angelina Jolie’s thighs or who Jennifer Aniston is shacking up with this week. People give power to these organizations to do things we would otherwise find distasteful. And every time a news organization manages to up the bar – we buy more. The more we buy the more it gives credence to any ethical or moral standard so long as the public buys it.

It becomes engrained within those organizations as a culture which says “it’s okay to do this – you don’t need to ask permission so long as the ROI keeps going up”.

The problem quite often stems from “legitimate” uses of certain techniques, such as voice mail tampering, when the net benefit is for something that really matters. Such as political corruption. How many important public stories would never have seen the light of day if someone hadn’t used these techniques?

Originally, there may have been some initial public benefit with ethical and moral limits to the usage of some techniques over others to get a story. However over time the original intent of these limits become lost as people move onto new jobs and don’t pass on the lessons of the past to guide those making our future. In short – what once was only permissible in limited circumstances, quickly is adapted for other uses for which it was not intended.

I can envision a situation now where the people at the News of the World are sitting around with these dumb expressions on their faces – realizing that some people went too far – but also trying to figure out how they were suppose to change a situation that was ingrained into the culture of the organization.

Think about this for a moment – how many things happen in your place of work that are morally or ethically wrong but you feel powerless to do anything about. If you raise it as an issue you are quickly put down, or worse – fired for being a trouble maker. If you do nothing, then you are guilty by association. If you take ownership and try to fix the situation you are again quickly put in your place for impacting productivity or the organizational brand.

People are not rewarded for doing the right thing – the are rewarded for doing the thing that benefits the most people in the shortest amount of time. And if that means stepping across the line a few times, well that is all well and good so long as the profits continue to roll in.

It is, in my view, a social injustice when organizations become so myoptic in their view of what they are doing that they fail to realize how important a strong internal culture is to long term productivity and growth. That means being willing to look at practices at all levels of the organization and say to themselves “what is wrong with this picture”.

I could excuse a small mom-n-pop organization as it is difficult enough to make ends meet without having the resources of an international bureaucracy at their beck and call. Multi-National organizations however have the resources to be asking themselves this question all the time. They should do so. It won’t necessarily catch every breach of ethical or moral standards but it will at least put in place a culture in which every member of the organization is trained to highlight problems rather than sweep them under the rug.

Do I fault New of the World for what they have done. No – as this type of scenario was inevitable with some news organization somewhere (notice no one is taking Fox News to task over what it may or may not be doing currently). What I do have a problem with is the lynch mob that has developed out of the turmoil when what we need is a solid discussion on journalistic ethics in all news organizations, not just News Corp.

— Kevin Feenan

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