Mass Communication, Living in a Media World

Chapter 14. Media Ethics: Truthfulness, Fairness, and Standards of Decency

Study

 

Chapter Summary

Media ethics are a complex topic because they deal with an institution that must do things that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances would not do. Media ethics draw on a range of philosophical principles, including basic Judeo-Christian values, Aristotle’s ideas about virtue and balanced behaviors (the golden mean), Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s principle of utility, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, and the Hutchins Commission’s social-responsibility ethics. One way contemporary journalists can resolve their ethical problems is by using the Bok model for ethical decision making.

Reporters face a range of ethical issues on a regular basis. Those issues include the following:

  • Truthfulness. Journalists need to make a commitment to telling the truth. This includes not giving false or made-up reports, and telling truthful stories that are not intended to deceive the audience. This may require reporters to provide not only the facts but also the context surrounding them. Truthfulness requires a commitment not only from the journalist but also from the organization he or she works for.
  • Conflicts of interest. The interests of a corporation that owns a news organization may sometimes be at odds with the nature of the news being reported. Journalists need to be careful not only to portray their parent company in an accurate light but also to give no special favors to companies connected to the organization’s parent company.
  • Sensationalism. News organizations sometimes emphasize news that is interesting but unimportant. This happens when reporters put more effort into attracting and pleasing an audience than into reporting on the critical issues of the day. This can happen because of the increased pace of the news business brought about by cable television, the Internet, and the parent company’s desire for profits.
  • Authenticity and appropriateness of photographs. Photos can be among the most controversial media materials, both because of their disturbing content and because they can be altered with digital editing tools.

Journalists and their employers can apply a variety of methods for enforcing and implementing ethical behavior. These include employing an ombudsman, requiring commitment to ethical behavior on the part of all employees, and adhering to a code of ethics.

The advertising industry became concerned with protecting its image during World War II. Among the major ethical issues in advertising are the following:

  • Truthfulness. How important is it that claims such as “Tastes great” or “It’s the best” can be demonstrably true?
  • Taste. Is it appropriate for ads to attract attention by shocking audiences?
  • Media control. Do advertisers have a right to control the editorial material that surrounds their advertisements?

In the public relations industry, practitioners need to work at balancing their clients’ interests against those of the public at large. This can become problematic when a client is attempting to influence the public to support an issue such as going to war.

 

Learning Objectives

  • How does a photographer justify taking and publishing disturbing images?
  • Identify, define, and apply the following ethical principles: Aristotle’s golden mean, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s principle of utility, Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and the Hutchins Commission principle of social responsibility.
  • Name and apply the three steps of the Bok model of ethical decision- making.
  • Explain at least two kinds of difficulties journalists and media writers have encountered in attempting to be truthful.
  • Describe how corporate values can come into conflict with journalistic values.
  • Explain what sensationalism is and how it has been used by journalists over time.
  • Explain how journal make judgments about what international news matters to a local audience.
  • Explain how journalists can into trouble trying to report on rapidly breaking stories.
  • Indicate three ways in which digital alteration of images creates ethical problems for the media.
  • Explain two ways in which news organizations go about enforcing ethics, and mention the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  • Explain why truthfulness can be ambiguous in advertising.
  • Discuss the conditions under which racial humor and commentary can become racist. Explain why advertisers might deliberately violate standards of good taste and consumer values in their ads.
  • Show how and why advertisers attempt to control the media in which they place their ads. Name at least two groups to which a public relations professional owes loyalty. Explain how these loyalties can come into conflict.

 

Review Questions

  • What are the differences between ethics and morals?
  • What is the veil of ignorance?
  • How was Stephen Glass able to beat the fact checkers?
  • What are the causes of increased instances of sensationalism and tabloidization?
  • What mistakes were made in the media coverage of the Sago Mine disaster?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the ombudsman?
  • What is the Family Friendly Programming Forum?