The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog

British Journalism: some views from the States

In the continuing debate about libel reform there has been substantial reliance on the legal approach in America, where the First Amendment normally trumps other rights and interests. Since the decision in New York Times v Sullivan public figures cannot sue for defamation unless they can establish malice.

Inforrm has approached leading American journalists for their views on the British Press and the differences in between journalism in the United States and journalism in the UK . There are only a few national papers, the New York Times (circulation about 1 million) , the Wall Street Journal (circulation about 2.1 million copies , including 400,000 online paid subscriptions) Washington Post (circulation about 580,000) and USA Today (circulation about 1.9 million). The Washington Post reports more local news and is also focused on Government issues. All national papers have some staff foreign correspondents but these are less than before because of falling revenue. They also use stringers abroad.

The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, LA Times and the Baltimore Sun are the other major local newspapers. They have Washington Bureaus and some foreign correspondents but less foreign correspondents than a few years ago. There are also the Miami Herald and the St Petersburg Times and there are numerous other local newspapers. In contrast to the UK there is only a limited tabloid market in the US. The National Enquirer magazine is the most “tabloid” outlet in the US, and it was recently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Senator John Edwards affair. The nomination was controversial and it did not win the Prize. The New York Post is also tabloid but mild in comparison to the British press. There is also a few other tabloid magazines such as Star magazine , OK! (US), People magazine and US magazine which focus on celebrities.

There was consensus among the American Journalists that we spoke to that there are number of fundamental ethical rules and methods of American journalism which are very different from the approach followed by the majority of the British Press (particularly the tabloid press).

First Rule – Don’t pay for the story:  The US newspapers do not pay for stories. One reason they do not pay for stories is that if payment is offered then the person tends to provide the story that they think the journalists want. Also the payment and the newspapers then becomes part of the story. US newspapers would not have paid the reported £300,000 that the Telegraph paid for the data on the Members of Parliament. They would also not pay for kiss and tell stories for two reasons. They do not pay for stories and they are generally reluctant to run article about peoples private lives. It appears that the National Enquirer does pay for stories.

Second Rule – Don’t reveal sources: Like in the UK US journalists do not reveal their sources. However the US Courts appear more willing to order source disclosure and over the last few dacades a substantial number of US journalists over the past decades have been imprisoned for refusing to hand over notes or for refusing to reveal sources. Eg Judith Miller of the New York Times. In July 2005, Miller was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a leak naming Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. Plame’s CIA identity was divulged publicly in a column by conservative political commentator Robert Novak on July 14, 2003. The First Amendment Center has a detailed discussion about US source disclosure cases including the Judith Miller case here.

Third Rule – Don’t lie or use deception to get a story: In the US journalist believe that they should not lie or deceive in order to get a story. They don’t engage in stings or entrapment. Such tactics are unethical. Stings involve deception and the journalist becoming part of the story. If you entrap someone you would not know whether the target would do the actions but for the entrapment.

Fourth Rule- Don’t cooperate with the Police: US journalists don’t cooperate with the police. If the police want to see the journalist notes the journalist will refuse to hand over the notes but this may well result in journalist /paper publishing all the notes in an article to prevent a court ordering the journalists to hand over the notes.

Fifth rule- Prior Notification: Always seek the comment from the target and it should generally go high up in the article – something like the third paragraph. The response should not be buried at the bottom of the article. Obviously if the target refuses to give a response then at least they have been given an opportunity. Another fundamental difference between the US and the UK concerns sex stories. In general, US Journalists are very reluctant to cover sex stories unless there is hypocrisy by a politician and it is a newsworthy story.

The US view of the UK press

US newspapers journalists don’t do stings, entrapments, payments to sources, kiss and tells, and find the obsession of the UK press with sex stories difficult to comprehend. They think that this is perhaps a basic cultural difference.There is a much stronger and more powerful tabloid tradition in the UK, which would not succeed in the US because it is different culture. The UK press sometimes appear to act as reporters, police judge and Jury whereas the US reporter is trying to be a neutral observer, trying not to affect the story or be part of the story.

One US journalist said to us that the difference between US and the UK is that in the US , you never let the story get in the way of the facts whereas in the UK the opposite was true. The US journalists referred to the notorious case of Jason Blair who worked for the New York Times as a journalist but was later exposed as a plagiarist and fantasist who fabricated parts of stories. Jason Blair resigned and now works as a life coach. The New York Times reported on Blair’s misdeeds in a lengthy front page article on 11th May 2003 entitled “Correcting the Record; The Times Reporter Who resigned leaves a Long Trail of Deception. One US based reporter said while Jason Blair was the exception in the US such practices were much more frequent in the UK.


There are certainly very different cultural values in play in the US and UK but also very different approaches to journalism. ethics and the role of the media. Maybe the media in both countries get the law that they deserve. Comparisons between the two legal systems are only useful in the context of what actually happens in each country. Here are some interesting links: Reuters Handbook, The Pew Center, New York Times Policy on Ethics in Journalism, and finally a collection of links on Journalism Ethics.

1 Comment

  1. Steven Price

    A few comments. First, I’m not sure the distinction between the legal regimes on source disclosure is as marked as this. US journalists might well raise an eyebrow at some of the recent UK decisions compelling source disclosure, I think (as, indeed, has the ECHR).

    Second: UK reporters hand over their notes to the Police?? And don’t bother seeking comment from those criticised before publication?

    Third: there is a fine tradition of using deception to get important stories in the US. See, for example, Judge Posner’s famous comment in the Desnick case, where a TV programme misled an eye clinic in the course of a hidden camera sting: “Investigative journalists well known for ruthlessness promise to wear kid gloves. They break their promise, as any person of normal sophistication would expect.”

    Finally, I’ve always felt that the most fundamental difference in reporting is a stronger commitment to objectivity in the US. The reporting is much more straight-down-the-middle. Sure, you get claims that the New York Times is left wing and (more validly, I think) that the Washington Times is right-wing, but generally the reporting is more factual and analysis tends to be ring-fenced. Even the news stories in the quality press in Britain are often promiscuous with the writer’s opinions, in the form of loaded adjectives, for example. (I’m not trying to argue that objectivity exists as such, simply that US reporters seem to better hew to the ideal of objectivity in practice.)

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