Media Ethics
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Media Ethics

Cases and Moral Reasoning

Clifford G. Christians, Mark Fackler, Kathy Brittain Richardson, Peggy Kreshel

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eBook - ePub

Media Ethics

Cases and Moral Reasoning

Clifford G. Christians, Mark Fackler, Kathy Brittain Richardson, Peggy Kreshel

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About This Book

Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning challenges readers to think analytically about ethical situations in mass communication through original case studies and commentaries about real-life media experiences.

This text provides a comprehensive introduction to the theoretical principles of ethical philosophies, facilitating ethical awareness. It introduces the Potter Box, with its four dimensions of moral analysis, to provide a framework for exploring the steps in moral reasoning and analyzing the cases. Focusing on a wide spectrum of ethical issues faced by media practitioners, the cases in this Eleventh Edition include the most recent issues in journalism, broadcasting, advertising, public relations and entertainment. Cases touch on issues and places worldwide, from Al Jazeera to the Xinhua News Agency, from Nigerian "brown envelopes" to PR professional standards in South Africa. Racially divisive language comes up in different communication contexts, as does celebrity influence on culture.

A core textbook for classes in media ethics, communication ethics, and ethics in journalism, public relations, and advertising.

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Democratic theory gives the press a crucial role. In traditional democracies, education and information are the pillars on which a free society rests. Informed public opinion is typically believed to be a weapon of enormous power—indeed, the cornerstone of legislative government. Therefore, a free press is also central to Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of politics, for example; Jefferson characteristically referred to an independent information system as “that liberty which guards our other liberties.”1
Because of the press’s privileged position (commonly termed the enlightenment function), outside critics and inside leaders have persistently urged it toward responsible behavior. Thomas Jefferson himself lamented how such a noble enterprise could degrade itself by publishing slander and error. Joseph Pulitzer worried that without high ethical ideals, newspapers would fail to serve the public and could even become dangerous. Early in the seventeenth century, the French moralist La Bruyère chided newswriters for reporting trivia and demeaning their high obligation: “They lie down at night in great tranquility upon a piece of news … which they are obliged to throw away when they awake.” A few years earlier, John Cleveland cautioned against respecting diurnal makers, “for that would be knighting a Mandrake … and giving an engineer’s reputation to the maker of mousetraps.”2
Modern criticisms of journalism seem merely to echo complaints that are centuries old. However, the number of today’s cavilers and the bitterness of their attacks set the present decade apart. A free press remains an urgent ideal in a complicated world where expectations of journalistic performance are higher than ever before. Actually, the intense and widespread criticism may have yielded a modest dividend: never before have the media been so aware of the need for responsible behavior.
A self-conscious quality hangs heavily over newsrooms and professional conventions. Aside from the bandits and the pompous who remain untouched by any attacks, some movement is evident. How can journalists fulfill their mission credibly? Should Pulitzer Prizes be given to reporters who use deception to get a story? Why not form an ethics committee? Are codes of ethics helpful? Do the new-media technologies require a new ethics? Should journalism schools teach ethics courses? Such well-intentioned questions crop up more and more. The cases in Part 1 present the primary issues and problems that are currently being debated among those with a heightened awareness of journalism’s ethical responsibility.
The fresh interest in ethics and the profit to be gained from working through these cases may be threatened by the Western press’s commitment to independence. There is a rhetoric from as far back as Jefferson, who called for a nation “where the press is free.” Others have argued: “you cannot chain the watchdog”; “allowing controls over the news media by anyone makes it a mockery.” And in countries where freedom is valued, accountability is not often understood clearly. Accountability, properly requested and unreservedly given, is alien territory. Although the belief in a free press is sincere and of critical importance, it often plays tricks on the press’s thinking about ethics. Ethical principles concerning obligation and reckoning do not find a natural home within a journalism hewn from the rock of negative freedom. Part 1 advocates freedom of the press, but it promotes an accountable news system and attempts to provide content for that notion.
Ethical questions concerning conflict of interest, truthfulness, privacy, social justice, confidentiality, and the other issues we address here must be considered in an environment of stress. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 62 percent of Americans believe news is biased and 44 percent say that news is inaccurate, alarming statistics by anyone’s measure.3 For some, it represents kicking the chair on which you stubbed your toe. The anxieties experienced in a nation uncertain of its world leadership role often provoke outbursts against the messenger. Nonetheless, we must continue working on media ethics, even in these hard times. Restrictions tend to make newspeople feel stifled, yet the contemporary cultural climate demands that journalism employ restraint and sobriety.4 Although all the problems cannot be solved in the five chapters in this part, the analysis and resolution of the moral dilemmas presented here address matters of high priority on the journalist’s agenda.

Learning Objectives

The learning objectives for Part 1, Chapters 15, are straightforward but tremendously important:
Know the pressures from businesses and the new technologies that influence ethical reporting.
Understand the nature of truth and its centrality in news.
Understand the importance of ethics for source–reporter relationships.
Distinguish reporting that recognizes issues of social justice from journalism that is insensitive to these issues.
Explain how the public’s right to know must be balanced against the public’s right to privacy.
The oldest known newspaper in industrial societies was published in Germany in 1609. Journalism’s policies and reporters’ conduct have been debated ever since. But the news media’s internal struggles over values and harm to society were not linked directly to ethical principles until the end of the nineteenth century. Media critics did not use the word “ethics” until the 1890s, when they began to reflect not only on everyday practices but on policies and structures. As the news media expanded rapidly in Britain, for example, and developed a corporate structure in North America at the transition to a new century, an intellectual concern for the media’s moral obligations began to take hold. This systematic work on business competition and practices continued through the broadcast era; and, as this chapter illustrates, business issues are also central to media ethics in the digital era around the world.1
Nothing is more difficult in the mass-media enterprise than promoting the public good, even though the rewards—professionally and financially—are not commensurate with such altruism. Especially in today’s financial chaos for the news media, it is difficult to separate the media’s financial interests from the public’s legitimate news interests. The law may protect the media from government constraint, but the news is under the perpetual risk of corporate interest in survival. Granted, a conflict between the public’s need for unpolluted information and the need of media owners for profit is not inevitable. Surviving financially and deciding to stop a dead-ended investigation could both be appropriate; but moral questions emerge when the two are connected as cause and effect. One person serving in two potentially conflicting capacities—for example, as executive for Columbia Broadcasting and board member for Columbia University—may indeed be ethically appropriate.2 Not every owner or executive is automatically suspect.
Nonetheless, ever since so much of mass communication in industrial societies took on a big business character at the turn of the twentieth century, there have been built-in commercial pressures. The angry critic Upton Sinclair said accusingly in 1920:
As the ominous trend continues in the digital revolution toward concentrated ownership of media properties, cost-conscious publishers threaten to overwhelm the press’s noble mission of providing information the public needs to know.4 The four cases that follow demonstrate how media practitioners are often caught in conflicting duties to their employers, to their readers or viewers, and to their own professional conscience. They illustrate some of the conundrums that occur regularly in today’s news business.
The first case, “HuffPost News and Opinion Website,” illustrates how online technology can deliver quality news and survive financially. In the process of maintaining its online information platform, problems have appeared in balancing revenue with original reporting. These challenges require ethical principles for guidance and resolution.
The second case, “Crises in the Journalism Profession,” uses international research to study the impact on media workers from the financial turmoil in the media. The rising rate of newsroom burnout, suicides, depression, and resignations in different countries requires a media ethics that is able to analyze the issues and to support the many nongovernment agencies that are dealing with the personal side of the crises.
The third case, “Bankruptcy at the Phi...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Media Ethics
APA 6 Citation
Christians, C., Fackler, M., Richardson, K. B., & Kreshel, P. (2020). Media Ethics (11th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Christians, Clifford, Mark Fackler, Kathy Brittain Richardson, and Peggy Kreshel. (2020) 2020. Media Ethics. 11th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Christians, C. et al. (2020) Media Ethics. 11th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Christians, Clifford et al. Media Ethics. 11th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.