Questions of media ethics address the way media practitioners – journalists, public relations (PR) representatives, bloggers, technical support staff – resolve various types of dilemmas they face, as well as the value judgments that media audiences make regarding media content and performance. What does it mean to be “responsible” as a media professional? How should journalists balance the need for sensitivity with their mission to convey accurate, comprehensive depictions of events? What should a PR practitioner do when the interests of a business client conflict with professional values of public service and transparency? How do newspaper readers and television viewers expect news organizations to minimize potential harm to people without sanitizing the news? These are examples of key questions that concern media ethicists. As such questions make clear, ethics generally is not concerned with defining “right” and “wrong,” which is the subject of the broader field of moral philosophy. Instead, ethics provides tools to help navigate “gray” areas in which conflicting or competing solutions may be legitimately argued. The purpose of ethics, then, is not to provide clear-cut answers regarding what constitutes good behavior or the “right” thing to do, but to enable people to resolve conflicts and dilemmas by asking the right questions based on the promotion and prioritization of key ethical principles and values.
The Philosophy Of Ethics
A moral dilemma, Foot (2002, 14) said, is “a special case of the dilemma that exists wherever there is evidence for and evidence against a certain conclusion. What is special is that the conclusion is about what an agent ought to do.” As a sub-field of moral philosophy, the discipline of ethics shares an epistemic form; i.e., just as moral philosophy is concerned with the essence that constitutes the “goodness” of something, ethics is concerned with what exactly constitutes the “rightness” of a decision when an individual is presented with a range of plausible (and often equally unsatisfying) options. At bottom, ethical reasoning legitimizes the moral claims we make. Walker (2000, 89) defined ethics as “pursuing an understanding of morality, which provides understandings of ourselves as bearers of responsibilities in the service of values.” The central concern of ethics is the justificatory power of our rational deliberation, rather than the nature of a particular moral stance. While morality and ethics are clearly related, they are not synonymous. Morality refers to a system of beliefs on which we rely to make judgments about right and wrong; ethics is a process to articulate rational justifications for our actions when the values that we hold come into conflict. “Ethics begins when elements of a moral system conflict,” the media ethics scholar Deni Elliott said (Patterson & Wilkins 2005, 3). While the two terms are often used interchangeably in general public discourse, the philosophical distinction is subtle yet significant.
Moral philosophers have sought ways to justify claims for the use of “ought” statements since the Nichomachean ethics of Aristotle and the dialogues of Socrates as recounted in the works of Plato. Hegel insisted that moral freedom be grounded in reason as well as in an acknowledgment of man as a vehicle for a larger “spirit.” Kant (1991, 2002) outlined a system of moral law based on our “absolute” duties to honor humanity’s free will and capacity for rational thought. In his landmark Principia ethica, Moore (1903) argued that “goodness” was a simple, non-natural property on which our moral judgments were based. Since then, moral philosophers have argued over what constitutes an ethical judgment and whether our conception of morality has any basis in reason.
In our efforts to articulate rational justifications for our actions, ethicists urge us to draw on common, longstanding principles such as respecting human dignity, truth-telling, and transparency, and carrying out our obligations as members of a community or public. These and other key principles comprise the heart of most professional codes of ethics. Ethicists direct us to draw on many different philosophers and theorists depending on the nature of the ethical dilemma we face. Our duties as social creatures with moral obligations are emphasized both in Aristotle’s call to pursue “virtue” through moderation and in Kant’s system requiring us to honor the human capacity for reason above all. The utilitarian approach of J. S. Mill can be useful in assessing the needs and welfare of a majority. The distributive-justice approach of John Rawls challenges us to envision a model of fairness that places a premium on the welfare of society’s most disadvantaged.
Ethics Applied To Media
While the broader principles mentioned above play a central role in media ethics theorizing and research, they often manifest themselves in more specific values that are enshrined across media sectors. Media professionals must be committed to a spirit of public service. They must be above-board, or transparent, in their work. They must take reasonable steps to minimize harming others in the course of carrying out their duties. They must allow their audiences to hold them accountable for their performance. Most cases in media ethics involve events or decisions in which two or more of these values come into conflict, and media practitioners must decide which will be given priority in a particular decision and why. Such real-life dilemmas are referred to as applied ethics. For example, there are many instances in which the journalistic mission to serve the public with aggressive pursuit of facts may create some degree of individual harm or discomfort. Most or all of the values mentioned above are explicitly promoted in codes of ethics adopted by professional associations such as the Society of Professional Journalists in the US, the Public Relations Society of America, or even the American Marketing Association. Media ethicists also are concerned with more specific questions such as perceived invasions of privacy, conflict of interest among journalists and people on whom they report, how public relations agents can successfully serve both private clients and the general public through their use of the media, and depictions of minorities and other vulnerable or disadvantaged groups in advertising.
Since media ethics is concerned with such fundamentals of behavior, the field incorporates several other dimensions of media. For example, media ethics research addresses the evolution of ethical standards and norms, questions of how ethical orientations influence professional behavior, and assumptions and implications of legal and policy decisions. Much of the media ethics literature that deals with these and other areas generally falls into one of two categories: philosophical explications for normative theorizing and empirical research on issues of media sociology.
A large body of media ethics literature attempts to develop theoretical frameworks to guide media behavior and apply elements of moral philosophy to media practice. Much of this work focuses on the organizational and social levels by suggesting how media organizations and professionals ought to perform to properly fulfill their ethical duties. This work also explores ethical implications of current practice. It includes arguments about threats posed by the propagandistic tendencies of message campaigns (Cunningham 2002) and the ethical problems regarding trust and truth-telling posed by online communication (Tompkins 2003).
Media ethicists have put forth various, often competing normative theories – calls for what the media ought to do as ethical agents – that advocate different philosophical approaches. These theories draw from the work of Dewey (1985), Lippmann (1922), and others who, while not explicitly concerned with ethical issues, have argued that media systems should serve specific roles in society. Merrill (2006), drawing from John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, has emphasized a media ethics framework predicated on First Amendment, libertarian ideals of freedom and journalistic autonomy. In contrast, Christians and colleagues (Christians et al. 1993) have argued for a communitarian model of media ethics, which emphasizes the obligation of media systems to cultivate community and encourage civic engagement. A considerable amount of the media ethics literature reflecting the communitarian approach draws from philosophers such as Taylor (1990) and Sandel (1982), and from the social theorizing of Habermas (1989) and his notion of the need for the existence of a “public sphere” to promote social harmony and ethical discourse. Regardless of the philosophical approach used, most theorists in the field of media ethics strive to distinguish their work from moralizing punditry.
Since ethics by definition primarily addresses the efforts of individuals to resolve dilemmas, empirical research in the field of media ethics generally focuses on the individual level of analysis and thus is considered a division of media sociology. Research in this area seeks to explore attitudes of media practitioners toward professionalism, their perceptions of responsibilities, and their decision-making processes and influences. It seeks to find explanations for how practitioners approach particular issues and the key influences in their decision to handle or resolve a conflict or dilemma in a particular way. Researchers have sought to assess the value systems and moral outlooks of journalists and PR officials; the moral development of journalists as compared with other professions also has been studied (Wilkins & Coleman 2005).
Most of the empirical research in this area has been based on surveys and structured interviews. Because of the interpersonal, largely subjective nature of the work in news media, theorists have suggested that the manifestation of personal and professional values and norms can be easily observed in workers’ output, which continues to fuel public debates about degrees of bias in content. Research on ethical decision-making in the media, as a result, often is more directly focused, at least among journalists, on professional norms and on the concept of news as a social construction of reality. Yet even so, many of these studies, which are ethnographic in nature, have directly addressed moral or ethical dimensions of professional media work. Gans (1980), for instance, was focused on how journalists “decide what’s news,” but his topic inevitably required an examination of personal and cultural values that he believed could be regularly found embedded in news content – what some social psychologists would say indicate journalists’ “ethical ideologies.” Shoemaker and Reese (1996) cautioned that routines and organizational constraints are likely to minimize or negate the influence of personal attitudes, values, and beliefs on media content. Conversely, McQuail (1994, 204) warned against ruling out any legitimate degree of autonomy in the newsroom and overestimating the power of workplace socialization. Much ethics-related empirical research, consequently, has focused on manifestations of values in content in efforts to contribute to this debate.
- Christians, C. G., Ferré, J. P., & Fackler, P. M. (1993). Good news: Social ethics and the press. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Cunningham, S. B. (2002). The idea of propaganda: A reconstruction. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Dewey, J. (1985). The later works, 1925 –1953: vol. 7 (ed. J. Boydston). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Foot, P. (2002). Moral dilemmas and other topics in moral philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Gans, H. J. (1980). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Vintage.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Kant, I. (1991). The metaphysics of morals (trans. M. Gregor). Cambridge: Cambridge University (Original work published 1797).
- Kant, I. (2002). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (ed. and trans. A. W. Wood). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785).
- Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Free Press.
- McQuail, D. (1994). Mass communication theory: An introduction. London: Sage.
- Merrill, J. C. (2006). Media, mission and morality. Spokane, WA: Marquette.
- Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Patterson, P., & Wilkins, L. (2005). Media ethics: Issues and cases, 5th edn. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Sandel, M. J. (1982). Liberalism and the limits of justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Shoemaker, P. J., & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media White Plains, NY: Longman.
- Taylor, C. (1990). Sources of the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Tompkins, P. S. (2003). Truth, trust and telepresence. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 18(3, 4), 192–212.
- Walker, M. U. (2000). Naturalizing, normativity, and using what we know in ethics. Canadian Journal of Philosophy (supplemental vol.), 26, 75 –101.
- Wilkins, L., & Coleman, R. (2005). The moral media: How journalists reason about ethics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.