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Tough Ethics Calls in a 24/7 World

By Michael Lotti

According to Al Tompkins, it’s no coincidence that readership and journalistic standards have declined at about the same rate.

Tomkins is especially concerned with the low standards that seem to pervade web content on news sites. “Why does material that’s more widely distributed have lower protocols?” he asked.

A case in point: more than a few news outlets reported that Brett Farve was being considered for (or perhaps considering) an appearance on Dancing With the Stars. A little bit of research revealed that one gossipy columnist had heard from Kurt Warner that it would be good for Brett Farve to be on the show. Then one news outlet turned that into a “rumor” that Farve might be on the show, then another news outlet quoted the first, and on it went like a game of “telephone.”

Tomkins is also concerned with the number of news outlets that fall for hoax videos, which turn out to be product placement ads. The standard excuse, said Tomkins, is lack of time—but he doesn’t buy it. “Would you accept a bad haircut from a busy stylist or soggy French fries from a busy McDonald’s?” he asked. Too many journalists, he emphasizes, simply aren’t doing standard research, and their bosses aren’t holding them accountable.

The result, according to Tomkins, is an ongoing decline in the public’s opinion of journalists (“We’re lower than lawyers now,” he laments) along with a decline in readership. The only solution: adopt and live by higher ethical standards. “Reach and reputation are all that a journalist has,” warned Tomkins. “And once reputation is gone, it’s very, very hard to get back.”

Tomkins concluded his presentation—and his day with MMPA— with a generous offer. “Email me or call me any time you have an issue you want to discuss,” he said. “It’s my job to help.”

Tomkins is a former broadcast journalist who now teaches at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg-based journalism school that offers classes to students of all ages, mostly via online courses and webinars (several of them free). His email is