Journalism ethics is a branch of applied philosophy of moral values and rules. Beginning with moral issues in medicine, the field expanded since the mid-twentieth century to include such professions as law, business, journalism, and engineering. Applied ethics has developed over the decades from merely describing actual moral behavior to establishing principles that guide decision-making. Journalism ethics retains an interest in the concrete, everyday challenges of professional practice, but considers it crucial to integrate those principles as well.
In its ideal forms, news serves the public interest, that is, the interests not of readers and viewers but of citizens. From this perspective, social responsibility theory has become the most common form of journalism ethics in democratic societies around the world. With the same core ideas but different nuances in countries across the globe, this ethical framework parallels the socio-political character of news. Through an ethics of social responsibility, the major issues facing journalism are: the market, truth, diversity, privacy, and technology.
Social Responsibility Worldwide
In the US, the Commission on Freedom of the Press published its report, A free and responsible press, in 1947. Named for the commission chairman, Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, the report insisted that the news media have an obligation to society, instead of promoting the interests of government or pursuing private prerogatives to publish and make a profit. Believing that the press was too committed to its own individual rights, the Commission stood both terms on their heads with the label social responsibility. For socially responsible news to fulfill its duties to the community means, among other principles, giving a representative picture of the constituent groups in society and presenting and clarifying society’s goals and values.
A similar emphasis on the press serving society has emerged elsewhere since World War II without any reference to Hutchins. In 1980, the MacBride report, Many voices, one world, put social responsibility in explicitly international terms. The UN delegate from Ireland, Sean MacBride, spearheaded for UNESCO this review of international media policies and practices, cultural diversity, human rights, and professional journalism. It described a world information and economic order concentrated in media industries that downplayed local cultures and silenced diverse voices in developing countries. MacBride recommended quality journalism education around the world, so that countries could report effectively on themselves.
Against the backdrop of MacBride, the International Order of Journalists and its counterparts – a total of 400,000 working journalists, the majority of the organized profession in the world – produced a document entitled “International principles of professional ethics in journalism” at meetings in Prague and Paris from 1983 to 1988. While calling for the autonomy of journalists, it asserts that journalism should operate in the public interest without undue government or commercial influence.
These examples illustrate social responsibility thinking in academic studies and professional codes. Most of Europe takes social responsibility for granted as the dominant policy in journalism practices and media structures, including public service broadcasting. The protocols and regulations for the European Union take as their starting point the need to preserve media pluralism, to ensure representation of the democratic, social, and cultural needs of each country and language group. Public service broadcasting pursues national priorities, in an exception to the predominantly market-oriented EU philosophy.
Since the 1990s, civic or community journalism has been restyling the press toward greater citizen involvement and a healthier public life. Sam Chege Mwangi has researched this movement internationally (Mwangi 2001). In Kerala, India, indigenous knowledge in agriculture, health, and housing is shared in local languages. In New Zealand during general election campaigns, journalists from The Evening Standard and Waikato Times live among the citizens and give voice to the public. In Latin America, more public journalism projects have been carried out than on any other continent, especially through community radio. In the language of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1970), the aim is a critical consciousness that empowers people. When journalists represent the voice of the people instead of speaking for themselves and for the dominant class, the press becomes an instrument of liberation.
In countries of Africa and elsewhere, communication confirms, solidifies, and promotes the communal whole. The Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu [“a person is a person through other persons” or “I am because of others”] reflects one kind of communalism. Humans are social beings and personhood is a gift from other persons. Ethics is not a question of personal choices but a matter of social and cultural duties. Because communal energy knits together public life, humans by definition have a moral obligation to one another. Societies are moral orders and not merely functional entities; journalism ought to appeal to listeners and readers about human values and conceptions of the good (Blankenberg 1999).
Parallel with these developments in the profession, education, and public policy, the expanding and deepening work in feminist ethics has strengthened social responsibility theoretically. Feminist ethics calls for a dialogic version more public than the usual private definitions of care and nurturance (Koehn 1998). The axis of feminist ethics around human relations resonates with social responsibility, in contrast to an ethics of individual selves adhering to formal principles. The work of the multinational alliance for a responsible, plural, and united world, in producing the Charter of human responsibilities, is testimony in the public arena to the viability of social responsibility guidelines for the media.
Media corporations are among the largest businesses in the world at present: Disney, Bertelsmann Corporation, General Electric, Microsoft, News Corporation (Fox), Nokia, Samsung, and Sony operate on a global scale unprecedented in corporate history. To cope with institutions of this magnitude, social responsibility ethics insists on social justice. A dynamic, multilayered ethics of social justice is at the leading edge of new information technologies.
The just distribution of products and services would allocate media access to everyone according to essential needs, regardless of income or geographical location. In contrast, the standard conception among private media would allocate according to ability to pay, letting the open marketplace determine who obtains the service. This standard assumes that decisions about allocating the consumers’ money belong to them alone as a logical consequence of their right to exercise their own social values without coercion.
In an ethics of justice where distribution responds to subsistence needs even if circumstances prevent adequate provision, information nonetheless remains one of the necessary goods. Practical wisdom (to form conceptions of the good and engage in critical reflection) and using the mind (for political and artistic speech) are essential to the quality of human life (Nussbaum 2000). As a necessity of life in a global order, the information system ought to reach everyone, regardless of income, race, religion, or merit.
The marketplace is unlikely itself ever to fulfill a need-based distribution. Digital media are disproportionately concentrated in the industrial world, and, under the business principle of supply and demand, no structural reasons exist for changing those disproportions. Universal diffusion driven by profits is unlikely. History indicates that communications media follow existing political and economic patterns; inequities in society lead to inequities in technology. A social responsibility ethics requires intervention through legislation, government policy, and public ownership to implement open access. One approach is to model media institutions on schools, which taxpayers accept as a responsibility in common, rather than leaving engineers or profits to decide alone.
The press obligation to truth is standard in journalism ethics. Truth-telling is the generally accepted norm of the media professions, and credible language is pivotal to the very existence of journalism. But living up to this ideal has been virtually impossible. Budget constraints, deadlines, and self-serving sources complicate the production of truth in news writing. Sophisticated technology accommodates almost unlimited news copy and requires choices without the opportunity to sift through the intricacies of truth-telling.
Social responsibility ethics requires not just technical changes and better effort but a new concept of truth. The mainstream press has defined itself overall as objectivist, so that the facts seem to mirror reality and genuine knowledge is scientific. The objectivity of physics and mathematics sets the standard for all forms of knowing. In this type of journalism, beginning most prominently with the wire services, news corresponds with accurate representation and precise data, and professionalism stands for impartiality. Journalistic morality is equivalent to unbiased reporting of neutral data. Objective reporting is not merely a technique but the moral imperative to withhold value judgments.
The prevailing view of truth as accurate information is too narrow for today’s social and political complexities, though objectivity remains entrenched in ordinary practices of news production and dissemination. With the no-longer-tenable dominant scheme, philosophical work is critical for transforming the concept of truth intellectually.
A more sophisticated concept of truth is disclosure, getting to the heart of the matter. Reporters seek what might be called interpretive sufficiency. The best journalists understand from the inside the attitudes, culture, language, and definitions of the persons and events that enter news reporting. In the process of weaving a tapestry of truth, reporters’ disclosures will be true on two levels: they will be theoretically credible, and they will be realistic to those being covered. Rather than reducing social issues to the financial and administrative problems politicians define, social responsibility requires that the news media disclose the depth and nuance that enable readers and viewers to identify the fundamental issues themselves.
Indigenous languages and ethnicity have come into their own. Religious fundamentalists demand recognition. The cultures of 20,000 ethnic groups have become more salient than nation-states. Rather than melting-pot Americanization, for instance, US immigrants now retain their cultures, religions, and languages. Identity politics as a dominant world issue after the Cold War, along with ethnic self-consciousness as a source of social vitality, challenge social institutions, including the media, to develop cultural pluralism.
To respond to the challenge, social responsibility ethics yields an individualistic morality of rights to the common good. Only specific social situations that nurture human identity can determine what is worth preserving. The public sphere becomes a mosaic of distinguishable communities, a pluralism of ethnic worldviews that intersect to form a social bond but remain seriously held and competitive. Active participation articulates and mutually implements the common good.
As the basis for cultural pluralism, social responsibility ethics replaces melting-pot homogeneity with the politics of recognition (Taylor et al. 1994). Democracies may engage in morally troubling discrimination when they fail to recognize their constituent groups. How should specific cultural and social features of Buddhists, Jews, the physically disabled, Native Americans, or Afrikaners matter publicly? Or should public institutions continue treating groups as free and equal without regard to race, gender, or religion, ensuring only that democratic citizens share equally in political liberty and due process? Language is the public medium for realizing individual identity, and its vitality or oppression inevitably conditions individual well-being. Thus journalism ethics requires a commitment to cultural pluralism, encouraging with other public institutions the flourishing of particular cultures, ethnicities, and religions.
Polls about public attitudes toward the press identify invasion of privacy as a premier issue in media ethics, at least in western cultures. Such intrusions create resentment and damage press credibility. Despite the technical sophistication of case and tort law, definitions of privacy are porous and inadequate. They fail, for instance, to distinguish between newsworthy material and gossip or voyeurism .
The journalism ethics of privacy builds on such moral principles as the dignity of persons and the redeeming social value of information disclosure. Privacy is a moral good because controlling intimate information about oneself is an essential component of personhood. However, privacy cannot be absolute because cultural beings also have social and political responsibilities. As individuals, human beings need privacy; as social creatures, human beings need public information about one another. For individuals, eliminating privacy would end existence as humans know it; for social beings, elevating privacy to absolute status would likewise render human existence impossible. Thus emerges the formal criterion forbidding an invasion of the intimate life space of individuals without their permission, unless, and only after exhausting all other means, the revelation would avert public crisis or have overriding public significance.
The social responsibility perspective turns the issue of privacy inside out. Instead of journalists deciding about falsehood, innuendo, or legitimate intrusion, people have power to decide for themselves. A reasonable public determines whether to expose its life space. Whether publicity places individuals in a false light or is warranted belongs first to humans as ends-in-themselves.
From the theoretical debate about what constitutes community, journalism ethical practice applies moral principles to three areas: (1) reporting personalia about social groups that vary from criminals to innocent victims, (2) storing confidential information in computer databases, and (3) allowing ubiquitous advertising to intrude on everyday activities. In all three areas, neither the journalist’s prerogatives nor the legal technicalities but the citizens themselves have priority and moral authority.
Harold Innis (1951; 1952) argues that social change accompanies media transformations. Technologies are not neutral; shifting from one medium to another alters how societies organize and how individuals think. Following Innis, Marshall McLuhan (1964), and the Toronto School, media ecologists examine all forms of media technology, from cuneiform writing to the Internet, to understand their properties deeply and distinctly. This perspective divides the history of media technologies into oral, print, broadcast, and digital, but nearly all the important ethical issues received their sharpest focus in a print context. The intellectual roots of the democratic press were formed during the reign of print technology, and media ethicists have a predilection for news in literary rather than broadcast form.
In the digital era, journalism ethics must establish an agenda appropriate to the distinctive properties of a system of networking, search engines, and computer databases. This ethical framework can orient most fruitfully around social structures, recognizing that political and cultural formations offline and online are fundamentally different. Cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare, and other urgent new threats to social order are impossible without a digital infrastructure. The ethics of representation has a new orientation as persons enact and symbolize gender, race, sexuality, and religion in anonymous cyberspace. Some issues are new, and some amplify past ethics to levels of complexity heretofore unknown. Other problems inhere in the accessibility of computer mediated technology itself. Digital technology weakens the distinction between home and work, emphasizes the character of interactivity, alters the struggle to engage social issues, and shifts the means to build human communities. These changes require special emphasis on developing appropriate ethical principles.
The new media must pass the same social responsibility test as the old: to what extent they fulfill their democratic potential. The important question is whether educational and information services will be primary. Interactive technologies give people a voice and connect users directly without professionals or gatekeepers in between. The technologies are democratic tools in principle – hence the concern that the new media serve people’s needs rather than those of special interest groups or the market. Multitudes of online channels are technically feasible. Will they tangibly improve the quality of education, broaden the political horizons, or make public policy alternatives more understandable? Important social issues raise moral conflicts that the public itself must negotiate so that the media provide the soil in which democracy can flourish.
New technology can be tools for conviviality (Illich 1973). Convivio means “living together,” and Ivan Illich emphasizes the means for communities to prosper, rather than destroying or homogenizing public life. Convivial tools are dialogical and publicly accessible. They do not require users to submit to expert pedagogy; they encourage experimentation, disassembly, and repair. Because of their simplicity and open design, they do not give rise to professional monopolies of knowledge. Fulfilling the principles of general morality often requires small, distributed technologies rather than massive or centralized ones.
Social responsibility is explicitly cross-cultural in character. The canon of journalism ethics has been largely western, gender-biased, and monocultural. To succeed under current conditions, professional ethics must instead be international, gender-inclusive, and multicultural. The global reach of communication systems and institutions requires an ethics commensurate in scope. Thus the current efforts toward a diversified ethics of social responsibility journalism build on a level playing field that respects all cultures equally. Because every culture has something important to say to all human beings, a journalism ethics in the interactive, transnational mode is the greatest challenge today worldwide.
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