Since the news initially broke that British newspaper News of the World staff had continuously hacked into phone systems to scoop stories, the media is still rolling in controversy/pious/Twitter-ready tidbit glory. Legions of reporters and bloggers continue to offer up comment on the scandal; all the while sanctimoniously shaking their heads, “Who could ever do such a thing?”
While I believe the majority of my peers in the media industry stick to their journalistic guns (and I have to; if not, my own morality would be questionable by reporting on the industry), it’s hard to ignore some of the bigger implications of this media circus.
Last week, Vanity Fair announced the release of an e-book, Rupert Murdoch, The Master Mogul of Fleet Street, priced at $3.99 for the NOOK and the Kindle. The Guardian, a U.K. news source, is launching an e-singles line called “Guardian Shorts”, selling for $2.99 per book. The first title in the group? Phone Hacking: How The Guardian Broke the Story. The series is available on the Kindle, and is to hit iTunes soon.
And in comes the dollars, alongside SEO opportunities. The Twitter hashtag #notw (annotating shuttered News of the World) reigned as a “Trending Topic” for a substantial period of time on the social site. Subjects like shaving cream pie (thrown at Murdoch during his hearing at The House of Commons in London, resulting in Murdoch’s wife trying to sucker punch the shaving cream assailant); Wendi Deng (aforementioned sucker punching wife); and News Corp. all took turns sharing space in the Twitter sun. [Vanity Fair even produced a faux New York Post cover depicting the incident, pictured]
Many bloggers reposted and reshuffled the news, with some writers taking creative liberties on the subject matter. At Playboy’s “safe for work” website The Smoking Jacket, a recent blog post written by contributor Adam Tod Brown, “I’d Hack That: The Six Sexiest News Corp Hacking Scandal Victims”, was posted on July 25. Currently, the post has 81 likes via Facebook and 114 “Diggs”.
There is also the more disturbing Twitter trend of using demographics of the phone hacking victims to encourage click-throughs. In a case deemed deplorable due to the exploitation of victims’ privacy, using the most shocking details of the case to drive traffic to a web property feels a bit like exploitation as well. It is undoubtedly important to report the developments of a case such as this; but it may be unnecessary to tweet “Murdered 13-year-old girl’s voicemail hacked” to gain unique users.
In a messy scandal about messy reporting practices, if there is a lesson to be learned, it’s not only for Murdoch & co. to understand. As PR reps become more overbearing and candid comments are harder to dig up, reporters shouldn’t lose track of what this business is (supposedly) about: delivering news as cleanly, honestly and void of sensationalism as we can. By educating and not convincing, we as journalists allow readers to form their own opinion about unfolding events; perhaps the most valuable service a publication can provide.