The access of evil

journalism

In the realm of reporting, a journalist distinguishes himself from his competitors through effective sourcing. Any staffer can reap information from press releases and meeting minutes. Rarer is the ability to establish strong and reliable lines of communication with high-value sources.

As the journalist increases his level of access, he increases his worth to his news organization, which aims to beat its competition by presenting more valuable information more quickly.

But relationships with valuable sources – even if they’re strictly professional – can undermine a reporter’s capacity for producing accountability journalism. The source (e.g. a mayor) does not share information with a reporter out of a desire to spread the truth or help out a newspaper, he does so because he seeks favorable coverage for himself – or unfavorable coverage for a foe.

Amy Goodman, host of the independent radio show Democracy Now!, refers to this as the “access of evil.”

In order to be able to get that all-important leak from a named or, better yet, unnamed “senior official,” reporters trade truth for access. This is the “access of evil,” when reporters forgo the tough questions out of fear of being passed over.

In their seminal book on the workings of the mass media, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman list this trade-off as one of the “filters” that shapes editorial content in favor of elite interests. Its effects are well documented by Chomsky and Herman, as well as by media watchdogs such as FAIR, Media Matters and medialens.

The journalist, then, is faced with a dilemma, as he must weigh the desire to advance his career against the desire to probe the centers of power he’s charged with covering. It’s difficult to fault a reporter – or, indeed, anyone – for siding with his career.

This raises a question for us, the audience. Should we – and can we – stop consuming Media simply because it offers exclusive access to important sources? If the reporter must trade his integrity for his connections, then perhaps we’d construct a clearer picture of the world by listening to the journalists who stand outside looking in.

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Flickr photo by silas216