Journalism Standards and Best Practices: Past and Present
Tom Burton discusses the job of a journalist and how best to conduct an interview without promoting negative stereotypes.
By Mia Mercer ‘23
The Feb. 5 release of Framing Britney Spears, a New York Times documentary that examines the pop star’s fight for control of her estate and the media’s handling of her stardom, spurred the beginning of a surprising entertainment news trend. Interviews conducted by celebrity talk show hosts in the early 2000s are now being reexamined through a 2021 lens. As a result, questions are circulating worldwide about whether it’s the journalism industry or society’s tolerance of early 2000s stereotypes that’s become a thing of the past.
Society’s affinity for stereotypes might prove more challenging to change, but journalism studies lecturer Tom Burton said the media can improve industry-wide simply by teaching future journalists better-interviewing principles, practices, and ethics.
“We each have our own story and we each have things in our lives that have different levels of privacy,” Burton said. “But when you’re being interviewed, you’re giving control of your story to somebody else. And as an interviewer, you need to respect that.”
Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey, and David Letterman are just a few big names whose celebrity interviews from the early 2000s have resurfaced as inappropriate examples. Although talk show hosts are often referred to as journalists by the general public, Burton classifies them as “entertainers” because their motive during interviews is to entertain the public rather than get accurate information.
“A journalist is someone who is reporting the news of the day, and they do it with a certain standard for accuracy, fairness, and service to the community,” Burton said. “The difference I see with someone like Letterman, Ellen Degeneres, and somewhat Oprah Winfrey is that they are not necessarily trying to find information or get perspectives that illuminate people on a topic or an important issue that affects their lives, but they’re looking for interesting conversation.”
Some talk show interviews blindside celebrities by asking questions about their personal lives that imply negative messages or promote negative stereotypes about them. For example, in a 2013 interview, David Letterman asked Lindsey Lohan questions about her upcoming rehab that made Lohan obviously uncomfortable. Even though it’s important for journalists to report the truth, Burton said it’s also important to do so in a fair manner.
“It’s not proper for journalists to promote negative stereotypes for anyone, and personal life is an area in any interview that has to be decided whether or not it’s relevant to what you’re talking about,” Burton explained. “It’s not off-limits, but it should be understood what you want to talk about before going into the interview. If [the interviewee] doesn’t want to talk about something, they have the right to do that, and if it’s something that’s only relevant to them and isn’t important to the rest of the world, they have a right to keep their lives private.”
The recirculation of early 2000s interviews has also raised questions about whether or not interviewers should apologize and be held accountable for their past actions. Although celebrity hosts like Degeneres and Winfrey are their own corporations that decide what they will and will not do, Burton said apologizing for poor ethics in their early 2000s interviewing practices should be considered.
“At the very least it’s worth taking a step back and saying, ‘This is what that was and this is where we are now, so what does that mean?’ And you may come to a conclusion that it isn’t worth addressing at all, or you may come to the conclusion that you may need to do that,” Burton said. “Since the early 2000s, culture has changed and I really hope the people that we’re talking about have changed as well. If you’re living your life right that should be the case. Standards are changing and people need to be aware of that and deal with the consequences of what we do.”
According to Burton, even though the journalism industry is becoming more self-aware of not following implicit biases or falling into cliches when interviewing, there’s still room for improvement. This improvement starts with journalistic responsibilities in three basic areas Burton teaches his students.
“The first is to the story itself,” Burton shared. “Is the story going to be true, is it going to be factual, is it going to be fair? Second, we have an obligation to the people whose stories we are telling. Will they understand that we have been fair to them when sharing their story? And third, we have an obligation to the people who get to experience the story. Are they going to be informed, are they going to be more empathetic to another situation, are they going to understand the world better, and are they maybe going to learn something about how they conduct their life so they don’t make the same mistake somebody else did? It’s important to see how people react to the words and understand the message.”