Doing Ethics in Media
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Doing Ethics in Media

Theories and Practical Applications

Chris Roberts, Jay Black

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eBook - ePub

Doing Ethics in Media

Theories and Practical Applications

Chris Roberts, Jay Black

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About This Book

The second edition of Doing Ethics in Media continues its mission of providing an accessible but comprehensive introduction to media ethics, with a grounding in moral philosophy, to help students think clearly and systematically about dilemmas in the rapidly changing media environment.

Each chapter highlights specific considerations, cases, and practical applications for the fields of journalism, advertising, digital media, entertainment, public relations, and social media. Six fundamental decision-making questions—the "5Ws and H" around which the book is organized—provide a path for students to articulate the issues, understand applicable law and ethics codes, consider the needs of stakeholders, work through conflicting values, integrate philosophic principles, and pose a "test of publicity." Students are challenged to be active ethical thinkers through the authors' reader-friendly style and use of critical early-career examples. While most people will change careers several times during their lives, all of us are life-long media consumers, and Doing Ethics in Media prepares readers for that task.

Doing Ethics in Media is aimed at undergraduate and graduate students studying media ethics in mass media, journalism, and media studies. It also serves students in rhetoric, popular culture, communication studies, and interdisciplinary social sciences.

The book's companion website—, or—provides continuously updated real-world media ethics examples and collections of essays from experts and students. The site also hosts ancillary materials for students and for instructors, including a test bank and instructor's manual.

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The Fourth Question

What’s It Worth?

Prioritize your values—both moral and non-moral values—and decide which one(s) you will not compromise.
The first six chapters of this book asked you to clarify moral problems, to understand the formal and informal rules that guide what you do, and to show empathy for stakeholders and others affected by your decisions. The next step is to think about what matters to you and your media enterprise—in other words, to consider values.
Values are the standards of choice that provide meaning, satisfaction, and worth for individuals and institutions. (Indeed, the word “value” comes from a Latin word related to “worth.”) Some values are routine, craft-based, and non-moral in nature; others are inescapably moral. Values often conflict, the choices frequently subtle and nuanced. When doing media ethics, values selections should be relatively transparent, and practitioners should be held accountable for those choices.
The four chapters make this section of this textbook the longest, because the “values turf” is expansive. Each of these topics has been topics of many books. The discussion of “What’s it worth” begins with an introductory chapter on the nature of values, and then moves to three key values for media practitioners. Specifically:
  • Chapter 7 tussles with insights from moral philosophers and moral psychologists who have explored the nature of values and value systems, and it applies these insights to mass media. By reviewing media ethics codes and media behavior, you should come to appreciate the complicated mix of individualized and collective values driving the media machines. The chapter also notes how media practitioners constantly juggle their own values—and those of their institutions—with the values of their clients, sources, subjects, and audiences.
  • Chapter 8 investigates the philosophic and pragmatic nature of truth telling. Almost all media value truth telling—some entertainment media being the understandable exception to the notion. We consider some limits to getting it right: how inherently elusive truth is, how it is gathered and disseminated selectively, how it is balanced against equally compelling values, and how general semantics can help us understand the use and abuse of truth claims.
  • Chapter 9 treats persuasion and propaganda as matters of value. We recognize the significant role of advertising, public relations, and other forums for advocacy—and information— in contemporary life. The chapter offers a model for ethical advocacy, recognizing the legitimacy of selective truth telling and loyalty to clients. It approaches propaganda as an inevitable component of media, and it suggests that sophisticated consumers and producers of persuasive messages should be wary of closed-minded, propagandistic advocacy.
  • Chapter 10 moves to the value of privacy, which requires a never-ending balancing act in media: We consider differences in the legal right to know, and the ethical dimensions of the “need” to know and the “want” to know. We think about how social media and ubiquitous marketing may have irrevocably altered our expectations of privacy. Encroachment upon individual moral autonomy continues to highlight today’s arguments about balancing privacy against other fundamental values.
As you will see, “value” is both a noun and a verb. It is the collective conception of what we find desirable, important, and morally proper. It also is the criterion by which individuals and institutions evaluate their actions and the actions of others (American Marketing Association, n.d. These four chapters attempt to help media practitioners, consumers, and citizen-critics make informed values choices.

7 Personal and Professional Values

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Doing ethics typically requires more than merely choosing right from wrong. You must choose between (or among) competing priorities when you make an ethics-related decision. Some of those priorities are moral, while others are routine, craft-based, and non-moral. Often the choices come with equally compelling “right-vs.-right” options, as Rushworth Kidder explained in How Good People Make Tough Choices (2009). When you make these decisions, you apply judgments that reveal something of your personal values. When a profession makes decisions, its institutional values are in play.
This discussion of values follows the discussion of loyalties. The previous three chapters presumed loyalty toward people was a value worth holding, and we explored questions about who deserved our loyalty and under what conditions. That may have left us with the problem of deciding how to balance our loyalties against other values, such as being honest and transparent with other people.
This discussion of values is particularly important in mass media, because media both shape and reflect a society’s values. “Those who tell the nation’s stories control the nation’s values,” media critics have said. What is unclear is how this affects people, because decades of media-focused research have reached the fuzzy conclusion that media affect different people in different ways at different times. This “mixed-model” theory of media effects suggests that media practitioners can never be sure of the power their messages will have in affecting the values and—either directly or indirectly—behaviors of their audiences. At the least, media practitioners should recognize the values they bring into their decision-making processes, even as they decide what role those values should play in helping shape the values of their audiences.
This chapter’s discussion of values also notes the values may be defined differently, and ordered differently, among different communicators. For example, nearly all media practitioners may say they value “truth,” but how they define and rank truth among other values may depend upon whether their job is to inform, persuade, or entertain. How journalists and persuaders define “truth” often depends upon their viewpoint, how much information they have, and who’s paying their salaries. And people working in entertainment sometimes say their works, while often a combination of fact and fiction, can show a larger “truth.”
Finally, media practitioners may find a disconnect between the values of their field and the professed values of a community that is their audience. For example:
Journalists who value truth might find themselves unappreciated in a community that values harmony and privacy, or called “fake news” by politicians who push back against accurate but negative coverage.
Public relations practitioners who seek to persuade may study their public to discover the values of that public, then forge a campaign that plays upon those values to sell what may not be in that public’s interest. Think of election seasons, when some campaigns divide communities in hopes of securing just enough votes to win. Sometimes, winning rips at the moral fabric of the general electorate.
Advertising practitioners who seek to sell products may, like public relations practitioners, also find ways to persuade in ways that can hurt a community. In the late 1920s, for example, PR pioneer Edward Bernays understood that women wanted liberty, so he designed the Torches of Freedom campaign to persuade them that smoking cigarettes (then taboo for “good” women) was a way to show their freedom. His client, a tobacco company, was thrilled as smoking became culturally acceptable for women and cigarette sales soared (Murphree, 2015).
Workers in the entertainment industry who value gaining an audience might use shock value to grab attention, but at the expense of viewers who value self-respect and children who might see inappropriate material.
Social media users can enjoy their freedom to say nearly anything they want, but they create or pass along information that supports their view but may be inaccurate, unfair, and outdated. They have the freedom to debate, or to corrode civility with flame wars and falsehoods.
This chapter introduces the concept of values, with a focus on how media codes of ethics help define values for practitioners. It both includes and moves beyond a media focus to consider how values may be relative to individuals or universal. It sets the stage for upcoming chapters that center on specific values for media practitioners. This chapter is designed to help you find steadiness in the balancing act among values.

Defining Values

What Values Are

Questions about the definition and makeup of values, where they come from, and how they impact our lives have been debated for millennia. Centuries ago, Plato, Aristotle, and Kant were among the many philosophers who weighed in on the nature of good, right, obligation, virtue, moral and aesthetic judgment, beauty, truth, and validity. More recently, scientists who study psychology, sociology, politics, and economics have studied the nature and ramifications of individual and institutional values. They have considered the nature of individual belief systems and the foundations of social/political/economic structures. Values— both moral and non-moral—are at the heart of such inquiries (Frankena, 1967; Black et al., 1992; Viall, 1992).
The term originates from the Latin valere, meaning “to be of worth.” It is no surprise that scholars specializing in values inquiry have generated hundreds of definitions. Those definitions call a value:
  • ➤ “a thing or property that is itself worth having, getting or doing, or that possesses some property that makes it so,” and that a value “belongs to anything that is necessary for, or a contribution to, some living being or beings’ thriving, flourishing, fulfillment, or well-being” (Bond, 2001, p. 1745).
  • ➤ “an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence” (Rokeach, 1973, p. 5).
  • ➤ “a conception of the desirable that guide the way (people) select actions, evaluate people and events, and explain their actions and evaluations” (Schwartz, 1999, p. 24).
  • ➤ the standards of choice that individuals and groups use to seek meaning, satisfaction, and worth. They are prima facie (Latin for “at first sight”) variables that undergird principled judgments, decisions, and actions (Pojman, 1990). They can be ends to themselves, or a means to those ends.
If these definitions seem overly broad, it may be because the word “values” is highly elastic: “Sometimes it is used narrowly as a synonym for ‘good’ or valuable, and sometimes it is used br...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Doing Ethics in Media
APA 6 Citation
Roberts, C., & Black, J. (2021). Doing Ethics in Media (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Roberts, Chris, and Jay Black. (2021) 2021. Doing Ethics in Media. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Roberts, C. and Black, J. (2021) Doing Ethics in Media. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Roberts, Chris, and Jay Black. Doing Ethics in Media. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.