COMM 431/631, Communication Ethics
Instructor: Ross Collins

Lecture synopses

Synopsis One: Ethical systems
So far our introduction to media ethics covered a general discussion about the concept of teaching ethics, as well as an cursory investigation into a variety of ethics philosophies. In a world where “everyone has a right to his or her own opinion,” where “what’s right” for many people depends only on culture and personal choice, can we really teach ethical reasoning for media people? Ethical relativism, as the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach is called, tends to ignore the reasoning behind ethical decisions, however. In short, while everyone has the right to his opinion, every opinion is not equal--opinions need to be critically evaluated. That’s what this course is all about: not indoctrination, but critical evaluation. The ethical decisions you make won’t be right or wrong, as long as they’re made rationally and critically.

The idea of ethics in journalism is not so old; newspapers through much of the last century had no concept of, say, fairness, and the U.S. Constitution does not require objectivity from our newsmakers.

As for ethical systems, you can basically divide more than two thousand years of ethics into three categories: deontological (duty-based), teleological (consequence-based) and virtue-based. Duty-based, or non-consequential theories emphasize following a duty no matter what the consequences. Kant’s categorical imperative is the most common example, but the six “prima facie” duties of W.D. Ross.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, advocated “utilitarianism,” making moral choices based on the greatest good for the greatest number. Or as a reflection of that, Mill’s “Harm Principle,” minimizing harm as much as possible.

Virtue-based theories emphasizes not on what we do, but on what we are, that is, our own moral qualities. The Judeo-Christian moral code, love your neighbor as yourself, emphasizes moral decisions based on respect for a person as a person, and not only as a means to and end. Aristotle’s Golden Mean suggested decisions based on a sort of compromise between extremes, and John Rawls asks us to take an “original position” under a sort of veil of ignorance, making decisions without prejudicial factors such as age, race or wealth.

Perhaps apart from these headings is ethical egoism advising, simply, “look out for number one. Related to this is Bertrand Russell’s and John Dewey’s progressivism, emphasizing “situational ethics”: what’s right for you may not be what’s right for me, so we’ll judge ad hoc, case-by-case, without a basis in moral philosophy. This is similar to ethical relativism, popular nowadays, but based on no ethical standards.

Possible discussion question: Which of these ethical approaches remind you of ethical instruction you may have received as a child, at home, in school, in church, or from others? What was the situation?

Synopsis Two: Making ethical decisions
How, specifically, can we reason our way to an ethical decision? One way is the SAD formula, Situation definition, Analysis and application of moral theories, and Decision or ethical judgment. Using this formula we begin by specifically stating the ethical question we’re facing, bring all our knowledge to bear on its answer, and make and defend our decision. We accept the role of our emotions in that decision, but don’t let our feelings dominate. While this formula offers the virtue of simplicity, it does not offer a very specific guide through all the questions we need to face before making our decision.

A perhaps more helpful formula has been designed by Thomas H. Bivens of the University of Oregon. This is the worksheet we’ll use for this class; for a copy see the class web site resources page.

Possible discussion question: of the three categories of ethical philosophies we discussed in class, which do you think most closely matches ethical decisions made be journalists? Why?

Synopsis Three: Truth
The world has long sought after truth as an essential requirement in law and society. As early as 1750 B.C. the famous Code of Hammurabi declared that those who lied in court could be executed. American law nearly 4,000 years later still requires us “to tell the whole truth and nothing but,” and marbled throughout our culture are examples of the importance we place on truth.
Nevertheless, we know people often lie. Sometimes it is an actual falsehood. If I say you will get an A in class for writing a good evaluation, when I actually plan to give you a C, I’m intentionally misleading you for my own ends. Deception, on the other hand, may be an actual lie, or may instead mislead you by insinuation, gesture, silence, or withholding certain facts. In media ethics, we probably deal more often with deception.

Louis Day said truth was fundamental in society as well as media for three reasons: one, lying undermines individual autonomy, distorting their freedom of choose; two, lying puts others at a competitive disadvantage, that is treating them as a means to an end; three, lying distorts trust in a person or organization.

Of course, making a choice in real life is not so easy. For instance, if a reporter wears a lab coat and hangs around a hospital’s emergency room for an investigation of medical malfeasance, is that justified deception? Some ethicists have said a Kantian “compelling reason” test ought be to used to decide: the reasons for the deception must be important, the decision to deceive must be made for humanitarian reasons, and the arguments in favor of deception must far outweigh arguments against.

The ethics of deception, too, change depending on the kind of media operation you are in. Journalists must uphold standards of fairness, for instance, while advertising and public relations people are expected to be biased. Still, a threshold of truth seems to be essential to any media industry interested in staying ethical and credible.

Synopsis Four: Power and ethics
Journalists often defend their decisions to publish controversial material by claiming their First Amendment right to publish. People who believe the media ought to be less aggressive and more passive, however, note that in exercising that right journalists can provoke suicides, breakdowns, and destruction of privacy. Journalist rights, or references to news values as a defense for publication, don’t convince very well.

Perhaps, however, journalists ought to re-frame their publishing decisions under a the ideal of obligations. If we believe that information is power, than the media are in the information redistribution business--from those who have it to those who don’t. If those who have the information keep those who don’t in the dark, they can make decisions unfettered by outside controls. However, the marketplace of ideas concept suggests that these decision-makers, like everyone, may be fallible, and make mistakes. If many people know the information, and contribute to a decision, a more reliable decision may be possible.

Journalists are criticized, then, for taking power from those who want to keep it, and giving it to those who don’t have it. For instance, if the public doesn’t know about birth defects in an area of possible water pollutants, authorities and businesses responsible for the pollution can investigate the matter at their leisure--or not investigate at all. But when the information is made available to the public, authorities are put under pressure to take action. Some of their power to choose is taken away, and given to those who were powerless through ignorance.

It is not so much the right to publish or broadcast that is in dispute, then, as it is the wisdom of decisions which shift the power of information from one group to another.

Question: Can you think of a time when you felt empowered by information given you that you had been unaware of?

Synopsis Five: Privacy
Privacy means the right to be left alone, but it collides with the media business, which generally involves NOT leaving people alone. The right to privacy, however, is a modern concept--it was hardly considered necessary in early rural America, and not until the growth of great industrial cities and mass media did it become truly interesting for readers to know intimate details about others. However, today many ethicists believe the right to privacy rests on these values: personal autonomy, that is, control over our own life; control of information that could cause ridicule; control over reputation; right to be left alone.

Today privacy law covers intrusion, that is, entering someone’s private property; publishing embarrassing private facts, if of no legitimate concern to the public; appropriation, that is using someone’s name or picture to sell something. But many invasions of privacy are still legal, but still pose an ethical problem. Special problems include revealing a contagious disease, homosexuality, rape, juvenile offenders, suicides, secret cameras, ambush interviews, and accidents or tragedies. It seems that ethical media people might take into consideration respect for people, the social value, and justice, in their decisions to invade privacy.

Synopsis Six: Confidentiality
Related to privacy as an ethical question is confidentiality, either as it involves a newsperson’s sources, or as it involves classified documents and grand jury testimony. We are well aware of what can happen if we reveal a friend’s secret--we learn this kind of confidential promise as children, but still feel the power of telling someone else something they don’t know. On a larger scale, the media is in the information business, and would be hard-pressed to produce anything at all if confidentiality were the general rule. Yet confidential relationships may arise in three ways: express promises, such as promising not to reveal corporate secrets or a news source speaking off the record; a sense of loyalty to an organization, especially felt in public relations areas; professional relationships of confidence protected by law, such as that between a doctor and a patient. Confidentiality, like privacy, can by justified by a need for personal autonomy, as well as the importance of trust in society, avoiding harm, and its importance in professions such as law and medicine.

Should journalists enjoy legal protection over confidentiality of sources? About half the states have passed shield laws offering some protection, but critics claim journalists who demand candidness from politicians and others ought not to be above the law themselves. They say confidential sources can attack with impunity, and can erode the responsibility of reporters to give readers the opportunity to scrutinize their sources. Reporters counter that without the promise of confidentiality, sources would dry up and the media would become merely a tool of law enforcement.

Synopsis Seven: Profit and ethics
It's obvious that democracy in the United States was built on the idea of profit as an encouragement to innovate, and it's worked very well in two centuries. But the profit motive can become excessive, can turn to greed, as was clearly the case in the 19th century, when robber barons running sweatshops demanded that children work long hours for tiny wages to assure huge profits for companies.
As what point does an ethical demand for fair profit turn to unethical greed? While it's clear wealth can benefit society, it also can put pressure on the marketplace of ideas served through the media. Economic pressure may come from financial supporters such as advertisers, investors, subscribers, from the competition, and from the general public. Advertisers may pressure media by the quantity of ads compared to "news hole," by ad budgets in general, as well as by direct demands on news people. All of these interdependent pressures are based on the peculiar nature of the media business: unlike most businesses which make a profit directly from its consumers, the media, one, makes its profit indirectly from advertisers, and two, offers a "product" protected by the Constitution.

Certainly the growing monopolies in print media and, due to recent FCC rule changes, broadcast media, have implications regarding the delivery of information essential in a democracy. But it's also true that some local media have improved their quality under chain ownership. Nevertheless, in broadcast, news more and more is expected to make a good profit, and is marketed with that expectation. In France and England, newspapers and television stations have been established through government patronage to sidestep the power of corporate profit demands, but United States media consumers have generally not looked favorably upon government intrusion of any kind in the media.

Synopsis Eight: Conflicts of interest
Ethicists define conflict of interest as a clash of loyalties. They may arise in all kinds of professions, particularly law, business, and public service, but are particularly common and criticized in the media. Many media codes address conflicts, but because rules are not clear-cut and depend on circumstances, decisions seldom involve core ethics issues such as truth, cheating or stealing. Media professionals, however, need to recognize when a conflict might exist.

Conflicts of interest fall into three broad categories: conflicting relationships, conflicting public participation and conflicting personal interests. Relationship conflicts are most common in the media. They may involve an advertising agency serving two conflicting clients, journalists accepting gifts or trips from sources, sports writers travelling with teams, friendships with sources, or "checkbook journalism": paying for interviews. Public participation conflicts ask media professionals to consider the possible conflicts of joining organizations they may have to cover. Many critics say such conflicts ought to be disclosed. Personal interest conflicts involve media professionals working two jobs, or doing free-lance work in addition to a regular job. Sometimes doing public relations on the side may conflict with obligations as a journalist.

In general, it seems that journalists today are expected to be much more careful about accepting gifts and joining groups than they were in the past.

Synopsis Nine: Pornography and ethics
Traditionally media critics, as well as media practitioners themselves, have differed on their definition of "what is dirty," and what effect it has on society. A 1977 Congressional commission examining the issue could find no link between sexually explicit materials and social harm. Nevertheless, many people believes it exploits women and children, in particular. The U.S. Supreme Court has tackled the definition issue, and in 1973 issued a three-part definition. Justices said pornography must be "prurient" to average people, depict conduct in a patently offensive way, and have no literary or other value.

On the other hand, clearly, "sex sells," and few people have been convicted under pornography laws. Media people also have to deal with clearly legal, but perhaps unethical, portrayals using "dirty words," nudity, racist or sexist portrayals, shocking photographs, or blasphemy. While most of this may be legally printed, and often legally broadcast (subject to FCC control), it may still be offensive to many readers or viewers. Some people argue that media people ought to control much of this material to avoid corrupting values and the need for responsibility in society. Others say few controls should exist, because harm cannot be proven and people's right to see this material ought not to be infringed.

Synopsis Ten: Advertising and ethics
The United States was built on promotional values, historians sometimes claim. Even in the 1600s brochures and flyers in Europe were promoting (and exaggerating) the benefits of settlement in the New World. Today we live in a highly commercialized culture. And most Americans believe it’s ethically all right to be “a nation of sales people,” in all fields, from religion to politics.

Advertising is the basic way we do that. The influence of advertising in society is hard to track precisely, although we know as a whole advertising’s influence is substantial. How should ethical standards apply to an area of the mass media profession not dedicated to “fairness” and “objectivity?” Special considerations in a democracy include political advertising: should it ethically emphasize rational appeals and evidence, to inform voters’ choice, or emotional appeals and false images, to merely add to the “marketplace of ideas?” Should advertising by ideological groups (gun, abortion, environmental, etc.) include emotional appeals and even lies because they advertise for a “good cause?” How should ads for harmful—but legal—substances and activities be advertised? Should the media themselves take responsibility for the content of their advertisements to protect viewers or readers? We do know that the FCC and FTC controls advertising to some extent, but the ethical questions of deception, emotional appeals, inappropriate products, and other areas go beyond regulation.

Many of us will argue that we do not expect advertisers to be fair or truthful, that we are sophisticated consumers who will make the right choices. Yet we may be deceiving ourselves. In a country where we’ll go so far as to wear someone else’s advertisement on our shirts—and pay for the privilege—it seems our cynicism of advertising may be more talk than truth.

Synopsis Eleven: Juveniles in the media
Americans generally believe children ought to be treated differently in society. Their youthful innocence ought to be protected, and if it's harmed, society ought to do what it can to restore it. This cultural paternalism has led to all kinds of child-protection laws, including labor laws, drinking laws, pornography laws, etc. The media have usually protected children who get into trouble with the law, but more and more, people are arguing that adolescents ought to be treated as adults, and names of offending teens published.
As well, many people have argued that juvenile literature ought to reflect contemporary concerns of kids, such as divorce, one-parent households, drugs, death, welfare, sexual development and abuse. These controversial children's authors are often the target of groups who believe this material should not be available to children.

Music lyrics, too, have been at the center of controversy, as has been, inevitably, television. The impact of television on children can't be denied, yet media people seem to have moved more and more toward television which targets more advertising at children, and offers violent programming early enough to catch many older children still awake. Media professionals have the difficult decision to make between ethics of paternalism versus requirements of profit and honest portrayal of contemporary society.

Synopsis Twelve: Conclusion
The goal of this class was not ethical indoctrination, but development of skill in making ethical decisions. We noted that while everyone's opinion has the right to be heard, under close and rational scrutiny, all opinions are not of equal value. The key to making reasonable ethical decisions, assuming we are not simply egoists but believe media people have an ethical responsibility in society, means we need to understand our own biases, and move from there. We used a worksheet to help us consider questions of facts, claimants, our own values, what other philosophers have said, and finally, a defense of our ethical decision.

While no one has established a universal system of making ethical decisions in the media, philosophers and professional codes can help guide us. In the end, however, it seems that in a cynical world, media professionals, who broker the power of information between groups, have a responsibility to at least consider the consequences to society of their decisions.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>