Against journalism: the downside of accountability

“Oh, but we need a free and adversarial press to keep people in authority honest.  Without someone watching them, they would abuse their position.”  Nobody seems to doubt this statement, but is it true?  Note that the claim “people are more likely to abuse power when they’re not monitored” is, by its very nature, unverifiable and therefore in a sense unscientific.  We can’t take two sets of authority figures, monitor only one of them, and then see which abused power more often.  We have to make inferences from what we know of human psychology.

Why is it that people with power generally don’t abuse it for selfish ends?  Apologists for journalism follow the “accountability paradigm”:  abuse is limited by the fear of exposure.  A more sophisticated version might admit that many people use power responsibly for other, more creditable, reasons.  However, some subset will be motivated only by the fear of accountability, and these the press can influence in a positive way.  What about the others, though, who use their power well?  What are they’re reasons?  If press campaigns undermine them, they may prove to be counterproductive overall.  For example, if negative press coverage instills fear in 10 basically bad officers but destroys the idealism of 90 basically good officers, the overall effect may be negative.

Many people in authority positions are impressed by the dignity of their office.  They see it as an enormous honor to which they must aspire to be worthy.  They look back to the deeds of exemplary past officeholders for inspiration.  What happens when a media campaign against a certain office destroys the dignity of that office, so that the office’s code of excellence is regarded as a joke and all officeholders are presumed by the public to be venal, lazy, and cruel?  Remember that accountability by journalism is a particular kind of correction–it is correction by public humiliation.  Any organization that gets serious journalistic oversight can expect to have its reputation in the dirt.

Do negative stereotypes and presumption of guilt encourage good behavior?  Sociologists have studied this question in the context of racial stereotyping.  While I think these studies tend to overstate the degree of race-based stereotyping in American schools and workplaces, there is widespread agreement on the effects of negative stereotypes.  They discourage good behavior; people tend to live down to them.  With no positive role models, minority youth drift into delinquency.  When people assume that you’re a crook, you’re much more likely to end up a crook.  Nor do negative stereotypes tend to prompt constructive self-criticism.  Rather, they make the stereotyped class hostile and defensive towards outsiders.

When journalists put the heat on a crooked politician or bishop or general, they will often make that individual watch out and behave better.  The cumulative effect of these sorts of exposes, however, is to demoralize the occupation as a whole.  These authority figures lose their sense of the dignity of their office (because it no longer has any) and the high responsibilities it entails; they see that they’re just public punching bags, and they become cynical.  Furthermore, fewer honest and motivated people will be attracted to the beleaguered profession, causing it to sink still lower.

So, does accountability by a hostile press improve the honesty of an organization overall?  The answer is less clear than it first appears.

4 Responses

  1. Keep up the good work with this series on journalism. Few people understand the corrosive effect of journalism on authority like you.

  2. […] Against journalism: the downside of accountability « Throne and Altar […]

  3. Thank you for the encouragement, Stephen. I’d been worried that this would be the series that would get me written off as a kook by those few who haven’t already done so. Your appreciation is very reassuring to me.

  4. There might be more people out there than you suspect who are at least uneasy with the press’s influence. They might not agree with your exact reasons for distrusting the press, but they do realize that something’s not quite right.

    For instance, in a recent law class, the professor was discussing a local court case involving journalists who claimed a special privilege not to reveal their sources. I thought I was the only student who disliked the press, but I was surprised that quite a few others did too.

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