Patrick Lee Plaisance

5Journalism Ethics

Abstract: Normative questions concerning journalistic behaviors, moral and social obligations, decision-making, and news content effects comprise the growing and critical field of journalism ethics. This chapter provides an overview of the most widely used philosophical frameworks as well as discussions of some central ethical issues of journalism practice, including conflict of interest, minimizing harm, and respecting audiences. It concludes with a consideration of likely future trends in journalism ethics research, such as theorizing on pluralistic global journalism systems and more inductive, empirical scholarship that explores the moral psychology of media workers.

Keywords: credibility, deontology, harm, virtue ethics

The field of journalism ethics scholarship is a vibrant, maturing one in which longstanding principles and frameworks are brought to bear on difficult questions of journalistic practice. It features both deductive and inductive approaches; much scholarship examines and promotes abstract claims of deontology, virtue ethics, and consequentialism as normative frameworks to guide behavior, while other work provides a more hermeneutic or interpretive approach by examining the dynamics of moral reasoning and decision-making within media environments. Scholarship that brings the philosophy of ethics to bear on journalistic practices explores the efficacy of organizational ethics codes, the nature of moral decision-making in newsrooms, the nature of journalistic duty when it comes to graphic images or unpopular views, the concept of harm posed by journalistic content, and many other issues that regularly raise questions about what responsible journalists should or should not do. With the news industry of many nations in a state of flux as economic and technological forces reshape business models and journalistic workflows, scholars have examined the ethical questions raised by these forces. In most cases, the evolution of a digitally based, collaborative journalism doesn’t raise fundamentally new ethical questions so much as provide iterations of longstanding ethical concerns such as privacy, autonomous agency, and harm. As one ethics scholar noted, “The speed of digital communication does not create new forms of immorality, but makes it possible to commit immoral acts so fast one hardly notices.” (Hamelink 2000: 34–35) As news organizations continue to search for successful business models to support journalistic work, ethical questions regarding conflicts of interest and content transparency have gained prominence. Media technology platforms that have served to democratize and decentralize the dissemination of news have underscored the debate about who, or what type of content, should be subjected to journalism ethics standards. Media ethics scholars also are attempting to articulate the features of a “global” journalism ethics framework that emphasizes broad internationalist ideals yet accommodates culturally diverse values and practices. Other work in the field explores factors on the individual, organizational and societal levels that help or hinder journalists who want to ensure that their work is defined by widely accepted ethical principles.

It must be emphasized that substantive work in ethics moves quite beyond simplistic claims about “right” choices or descriptions of best practices in a particular line of work. Hence, this chapter first presents an overview of the most widely used philosophical frameworks that ought to be applied to more specific questions. Then these questions – such as conflict of interest, minimizing harm, and respecting audiences – are discussed. The chapter concludes with a review of several prominent lines of theorizing in journalism ethics that suggest the future of the field depends simultaneously on work on the abstract level focused on what a pluralistic global journalism ethics would look like, as well as more inductive, empirical scholarship that documents and interprets the moral psychology of media workers.

As a branch of moral philosophy, ethics as a discipline is concerned with the process of finding rational justifications for decisions in cases that feature conflicting values. Often, ethics is understood in everyday conversation to refer to claims about right and wrong, and thus is often conflated with epistemology, metaphysics, and other branches of moral philosophy. All these are linked, of course – it is difficult to advocate for a particular course of action favoring one value over another without to some extent examining the nature of the “good” promoted by that value – but ethics is less concerned with seeking epistemological answers than it is with the quality of deliberative efforts to harness the power of moral philosophy in the service of a defensible argument. Moral philosopher Margaret Walker defined ethics as “pursuing an understanding of morality, which provides understandings of ourselves as bearers of responsibilities in the service of values” (2000: 89). The predominant focus of ethics is on the rightness of a given action: How can we say this particular action would be the right thing to do? Dilemmas posing this question, according to philosopher Philippa Foot, comprise “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 the agent ought to do” (2001: 177). Moral philosopher Robert Audi (2004) called these the twin goals of “normative” and “epistemic” completeness. Through solid and careful deliberation, Audi said we should be able to explain the normative duties that we have, and we ought to be able to explain why these claims should motivate us in certain ways – what he refers to as having an epistemic understanding of why such claims should be accepted as valid:

We want knowledge both of what we should do and of why we should do it. Epistemic completeness is needed for a theory to give us the comprehensive moral guidance we seek as moral agents; normative completeness is needed to enable us to explain – and, correspondingly, justify – the moral judgments we arrive at on the basis of the facts that indicate our obligations. (Audi 2004: 86)

The three main frameworks offered by the philosophy of ethics are virtue ethics, deontology (or duty ethics), and consequentialism. Each has a rich literature that spans thinkers through the centuries – and in the case of virtue ethics, with roots in the work of Aristotle, through millennia. Each is routinely drawn upon, explicitly and otherwise, in applied ethics throughout the Western world. And each provides compelling, and often competing, ways to articulate questions of duty, value, and effect for a given dilemma. The chapter then provides an overview of the key issues and practices that have preoccupied journalism ethics theorists. Lastly, it discusses some notable lines of ethics research that are important as the field of journalism ethics continues to mature.

1Key frameworks in ethics

1.1Virtue ethics

What does it mean to be a virtuous person, why should we aspire to be one, and how should we go about it? These questions can be considered as central to the work of Aristotle and of a host of neo-Aristotelian ethicists. Virtue ethics was originally articulated in the works of Socrates and Plato, and later was refined by Aristotle. Rather than dwelling on how we know goodness, Aristotle’s writings are focused on identifying and articulating the highest good, which he says has specific characteristics: It is innately valuable; that is, we desire it for its own sake and not for what it allows us to accomplish, and all other goods are desirable because they help us attain this highest good. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provided a meditation on the nature of the virtues, such as courage, temperance, and charity, arguing that the highest aspiration of human life should be the contemplation (and internalization) of the virtues. By doing so, he said, each of one of us becomes a valued participant of the polis. Aristotle argues that highest good is the state of “living well”, translated from the Greek word eudaimonia. Philosopher Richard Kraut describes Aristotle’s general call:

What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honour and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion. (2010: 1)

Aristotle argues that we do not want to “live well” so that we can accomplish other goals. Any other goals we might have – prosperity, health, other resources – we value because they promote well-being. Virtuous activity enables us to live well by serving as the reason we pursue “lesser” goods. Since our capacity for reason is what distinguishes us from other animals, Aristotle argues that using our reason effectively is what happiness, or living well, consists in. Just as in everything else, reasoning well implies a sense of excellence, and so we must pursue virtuous action. Doing so often involves taking to heart three concepts for which Aristotle is widely known: aspiring to live by what’s called the “doctrine of the mean”, to strive for what has come to be known as excellence in practice, and to ensure that everything we do will somehow promote the value of human “flourishing”.

1.1.1Doctrine of the mean

Just as a skilled craftsman inherently avoids doing too much or too little of something to ensure a job well done, we all must strive to see what behavior might constitute an excess or a deficiency of a given virtue. Since courage is one such virtue, Aristotle says. Truly courageous people understand that some dangers are worth facing and others are not. They do not shrink from every challenge, for that would be cowardly. But they also do not rashly attack all threats without any sense of fear, for that would represent foolhardiness or recklessness. The same sense of ideal behavior holds for every other virtue that Aristotle discusses. Finding the perfect point of moderation between excess and deficiency, or the “sweet spot” of virtuous behavior, is not a matter of mathematical calculation, but of an ability to fully understand the situation one finds oneself in. Aristotle’s argument that every virtue is a state of behavior that lies between two “vices”, one of excess and the other of deficiency, is known as his “doctrine of the mean”. Critics have suggested that this doctrine is not very helpful in many types of dilemmas, and Aristotle himself stopped short of suggesting that we might compose a kind of ethical decision manual with this approach. He and his neo-Aristotelian predecessors understood that life is too varied and complex for a series of rules to be useful. This does not mean that we are then free to individually decide what is good; just because unique situational circumstances may determine what it means to act virtuously, that is not the same as saying good behavior is relative only to our own beliefs and values. A life in the pursuit of the notion of virtue, he suggested, would result precisely in the kind of wisdom needed to discern the sense of moderation he advocated.

1.1.2Virtuous practice

While much of Aristotle’s Ethics centered on the cultivation of individual character, contemporary philosophers have worked to show how his system is useful in arguing what we should do on a social level. The virtues, as Aristotle articulated them, have implicit, and critical, social dimensions. In both Aristotle’s work and in the Homeric tradition more generally, virtues are presented as qualities crucial for effectively performing certain social roles. The virtues as he often describes them are not ends in themselves, but are instrumental in the broader aim of achieving eudaimonia. Today’s virtue ethicists, such as Alisdair MacIntyre, argue that idea of the value of virtuous behavior applies both to the individual and to society as a whole. “[T]his notion of a particular type of practice as providing the arena in which the virtues are exhibited … is crucial to the whole enterprise of identifying a core concept of virtues”, MacIntyre argues (2007: 187). He makes the distinction between what he calls external goods – things or acts that benefit single individuals – and the social benefits resulting from some work as internal goods. For example, the medical profession’s importance to general public health, as opposed to single patients, is an example of an internal good. The kinds of work that we value primarily for the internal goods they provide, MacIntyre argues, constitute the basis for virtue in professional behavior. We must understand this work as a “practice” that is distinct from other work focused on delivering strictly external goods (e.g., factory work, retail transactions, etc.):

By ‘practice’ I … mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the end and good involved, are systematically extended. (MacIntyre 2007: 187)

Practices involve “standards of excellence and obedience to rules” and are aimed at helping to deliver internal goods or things that contribute to the common good regardless of whom actually receives them. For example, journalists, when deliberately informing their work with the “standards of excellence” that are attached to their “practices”, are able to deliver internal goods such as providing information and analysis that enables the public to participate in a vigorous democratic life. This application of the notion of virtuous work to specific occupations is one feature that makes virtue ethics attractive in media ethics theorizing. This also lends great flexibility to such theorizing, as it allows that being virtuous can depend largely on the personal and professional situations in which we find ourselves. Media ethicist Sandra Borden neatly summarizes this in her book on virtue ethics and journalism:

An occupation’s purpose provides it with moral justification … if it can be integrated into a broader conception of what is good for humans. … Thus, the theory can explain why members of some groups have rights and responsibilities that do not apply to outsiders (such as cutting someone’s chest open with a surgical instrument or going into a war zone to take photographs). It also can explain why it may be morally desirable to prefer one person over another when faced with conflicting interests (the way a professional prioritizes her clients). Virtue theory’s emphasis on the habitual disposition to do the right thing … takes morality out of the realm of calculations and into the realm of moral responsiveness. (2007: 16, 17)

1.1.3Human ‘flourishing’

By flourishing, most philosophers mean what we all deserve to enjoy the fruits of our labor, to reap the benefits of cooperation and community engagement, and to have the means and resources to enable us to strive toward and reach our individual potential. So for us to flourish, we would need, among other things, a social system that is just and that maximizes liberties; encourages engagement, cooperation, and generosity; and frowns on more selfish impulses that can threaten to undermine these. “Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves,” philosopher Philippa Foot argued, “but also to pursue human needs having to do with love and friendship. They need the ability to form family ties, friendships, and special relations with neighbours. They also need codes of conduct. And how could they have all these things without virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience?” (2001: 44–45). Just the Aristotelian virtues are social by nature, so is the notion of eudaimonia: it cannot be concerned only with the good life of individual people; a life well lived must encompass one’s social roles and responsibilities. Human flourishing must refer to virtuous behavior that cultivates and protects a vibrant society. Theorist Nick Couldry describes it this way: “‘Virtues’ are the means by which stable dispositions to act are well specified, but the reference point by which virtues are specified are not particular ‘values,’ but precisely those facts about shared human life on which potentially we can come to agree” (2010: 66). Foot has done more than most to help make Aristotle’s writings about virtue relevant to our contemporary world. In her 2001 landmark work on virtue ethics, Natural Goodness, she argued that acting morally stems naturally from our ability to apply our reasoning skills to situations. “[T]he fact that a human action or disposition is good of its kind will be taken to be simply a fact about a given nature of a certain kind of living thing,” she argued (2001: 3). By concentrating on traditional virtues and vices such as temperance and avarice, she said that we can see connections between the conditions of human life as well as objective reasons for acting morally. Vice, she argued, is a defect in humans the same way that poor roots are a defect in an oak tree or poor vision a defect in an owl; the two assessments have clear normative implications, yet are also entirely factual:

[V]irtues play a necessary part in the life of human beings as do stings in the life of bees. … In spite of the diversity of human goods – the elements that can make up good human lives – it is therefore possible that the concept of a good human life plays the same part in determining goodness of human characteristics and operations that the concept of flourishing plays in the determination of goodness in plants and animals. (2001: 35, 44)

1.2Duty ethics

As moral agents, what are our moral obligations in the world, how can we properly discern them, and how should those duties guide our behavior? These questions illustrate the focus of deontology, or the branch of philosophy known as duty ethics. Here, the foremost concern is having a proper understanding of one’s moral duty, and acting accordingly – regardless of the possible consequences of doing so. The theories of 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant represent a classic example of a deontological approach: An act cannot be judged as right or wrong based on its consequences, but only on whether the person performing the act understood the obligations as a moral agent. He forcefully argues that since these moral “duties” define what action is right, our moral judgments cannot rest on the outcomes, or consequences, of those acts. Some choices, deontologists argue, simply cannot be justified by their effects: No matter how much they might result in some “benefit”, some choices are simply morally wrong because they fail to reflect our duty to behave in a certain way. This is why deontologists, in contrast to virtue ethicists, often state that the “right” takes priority over the “good”. The notion of “intent”, then, is critical, and has been extensively parsed since the time of Aquinas. For example, deontologists have argued over how exactly we should define causing evil and how that might be different from allowing evil. “For example, we can intend to kill and even try to kill someone without killing him; and we can kill him without intending or trying to kill him, as when we kill accidentally,” philosophers Larry Alexander and Michael Moore (2012) write. “Intending thus does not collapse into risking, causing, or predicting … [I]t is intending alone that marks the involvement of our agency in a way so as to bring obligations and permissions into play.” (p. 6) Key elements of many journalistic codes of ethics are Kantian in nature: they provide directives of the duties that journalists, as responsible professionals, must carry out. These include the duty to seek the truth and inform the public, the duty to be accountable for their work, and the duty to minimize harm as much as possible without compromising the first two directives.

As much as duty-ethics philosophers emphasize the role of our motivation in making moral judgments, they also are concerned with the rights of individuals whose fates are determined by what we do. As moral agents, we all have the right, they say, not to be used only as a means by others to promote their own interests. People cannot use our bodies, our labor, or our abilities without our consent. Yet our intents and our rights are not always compatible, and, thus, duty-ethicists continue to debate about the exact nature of our moral duties. Should one person in a lifeboat be killed and eaten so that all the others can survive? Should Siamese twins who are likely to die soon be separated by doctors to harvest the organs of the first to die to give to the second? Should villagers follow the orders of a tyrant to select one among them to be shot to avoid all of them being killed? Our answers to these will differ depending on whether we place a premium on our moral duty to prevent wider harm or whether we emphasize the right of individuals not to be used against their will (Alexander & Moore, 2012).

1.2.1The categorical imperative

Kant is arguably the foremost architect of duty-based ethics. In his extensive writings, he sets forth the nature and role of rationality. With an inexorable logic, Kant argues that what makes us special as beings is our God-given capacity for reason, and with the proper use of that reason, we can fully discern ways in which we are morally obligated to respect and honor that reasoning capacity – in every case, for everyone. Thus, the fundamental principle of our moral duties, he says, is the “categorical imperative”: We are to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (1797/1991: 395). It is an imperative in that it commands us to do something – Kant does not order that we perform specific actions to be “moral”; instead, he commands us to exercise our wills in a particular way. And it is categorical – that is, it applies to all of us unconditionally, simply because we possess rational wills, without reference to any of our personal goals or interests. For Kant, this categorical imperative calls on all of us to think more deeply about doing or not doing something. Philosopher Robert Johnson (2012) summarizes how the categorical imperative calls on us to consider the morality of an action:

First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world. If you could, then your action is morally permissible. (2012: 10–11)

But saying we all must act only if the action can be defended as a universal standard of action for everyone does not mean duty ethicists think we all must act in lockstep, with no consideration for the unique differences in our lives. Context matters. So in many cases, the moral obligations we have can be “agent-relative” – that is, they may apply just to us because of our relation to the individuals impacted by our actions. One person may feel obligated to act a certain way with family members to avoid moral failure, but that feeling of duty may not apply in the company of strangers:

The idea is that morality is intensely personal, in the sense that we are each enjoined to keep our own moral house in order. … Agent-centered theories and agent-relative reasons on which they are based not only enjoin each of us to do or not to do certain things; they also instruct me to treat my friends, my family, my promises in certain ways because they are mine, even if by neglecting them I could do more for others’ friends, families, and promises. [emphasis added] (Alexander & Moore 2012: 5–6)

1.2.2Conflicting duties

Having a set of “duties” to guide our behavior in the world may sound compelling at first. But it quickly becomes obvious that life is full of moments and choices in which morally relevant duties come into conflict. Kant boldly claimed that “a conflict of duties is inconceivable” (1780: 25), but this has struck many as dubious. Philosopher W. D. Ross laid bare the doubtfulness of Kant’s claim, saying even our most careful deliberations can involve what he called “moral risk”:

We come … after consideration to think one duty more pressing than the other, but we do not feel certain that it is so. … For, to go no further in the analysis, it is enough to point out that any particular act will in all probability in the course of time contribute to the bringing about of good or evil for many human beings, and thus have a prima facie rightness or wrongness of which we know nothing. (1930: 30–31)

Still, we do have a set of moral obligations. But Ross sought to articulate how we might think about them more usefully. Ross said we are bound by several of what he called prima facie duties – obligations that should be self-evident to any reasoning individual. Like the categorical imperative, his list of duties binds all people in all situations. But he acknowledged that we are routinely called to weigh them against each other, and to prioritize them in various contexts. We have a duty to honor the notion of honesty. We must keep the promises we make (fidelity). We have a duty to right the wrongs we have committed (reparation). We have a duty to express gratitude and return favors to those who have helped us. We have a duty to promote general welfare and justice for all. We have a duty to avoid harming others (nonmaleficence). And finally, we have a duty to constantly strive for self-improvement. There should be little argument over whether these duties are real and objectively true; they are “a hard-wired and evolutionarily advantageous set of rules that any morally mature human” should understand, philosopher Christopher Meyers argued (2011: 317). But Ross said we need to make reasoned arguments for placing greater moral weight on some over others in given situations. For example, in a case that may pose serious harm to someone, our duty to minimize or avoid harm may well take precedence over a promise we made. While such an open-ended theory may be perceived as daunting, its embrace of moral uncertainty in our daily lives should actually be seen as a strength of this approach, Meyers argues. Ross’s efforts to set forth universal duties yet acknowledge the contextual basis for how we apply them “is a far more accurate reflection of humans’ moral reasoning, both in fact and in capability”, Meyers writes (2003: 93):

Persons can, I think, grasp universal moral truth at the abstract level, but our moral decision making in actual cases is fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity. Ross, better than any other theorist, captured this tension. … Even the most duty-bound most morally committed person will make mistakes because of inadequate information, but such a person should not be held morally accountable for those mistakes. (2003: 93, 94)

1.3Consequentialist ethics

What policies should we follow that are most likely to result in the greatest benefit for the majority of people affected? This is the focus of the predominant strain of consequentialist ethics commonly known as rule utilitarianism, attributed to 19th-century theorist John Stuart Mill. In contrast to the two previously discussed frameworks, the moral weight, as it were, lies squarely on the assessed or predicted outcome of a decision. The key here is to recognize the limitations of our abilities to foresee all possible outcomes of a decision. We are far from omniscient. But theorists argue we should be held responsible for our intended consequences, and for possible negative outcomes that might be foreseeable. Rather than fixate on weighing all possible outcomes of a specific action or on aggregate goods benefiting specific groups (often referred to as act utilitarianism), theorists argue it is more useful to think generally about promoting things that benefit society. This would help, for example, account for cases when “pain” is perceived as somehow valuable. One contemporary philosopher argued, “[E]ven if punishment of a criminal causes pain, a consequentialist can hold that a world with both the crime and the punishment is better than a world with the crime but not the punishment, perhaps because the former contains more justice” (Sinnott-Armstrong 2011: 8). So instead of narrowly having to determine whether a single act would produce specific benefit or pleasure, this “holistic” utilitarianism compares “the whole world (or total set of consequences) that results from an action with the whole world that results from not doing that action”, he argues. “If the former is better, then the action is morally right” (Sinnott-Armstrong 2011: 8). This is the difference between using utility as a “standard” with which to judge the rightness of an act, and using it as a “decision procedure”. The latter is virtually impossible since we are not omniscient and cannot possibly anticipate every outcome of our actions. So most consequentialists argue for the former, as Sinnott-Armstrong explains: “Just as the laws of physics govern golf ball flight, but golfers need not calculate physical forces while planning shots; so overall utility can determine which decisions are morally right, even if agents need not calculate utilities while making decisions” (2011: 10).

Consequentialist ethics is often the most familiar approach in Western cultures, as the theory of utility from which it stems has served as the basis for most democratic legislative systems. As our predominant political philosophy, it is generally how we make laws, though of course with policy exceptions that are intended to protect vulnerable or disadvantaged populations. And it is built into most professional codes of ethics in the form of directives that call for mindfulness of the effects that practices might have on others. The common directive to “minimize harm” is one such example. While such a call has a deontological dimension, as discussed earlier, it also suggests that the moral weight lies as much on the resultant harm (or harm avoidance) of a decision as it does on the degree to which one is carrying out a stated duty. The focus here is on one’s intended consequence.

1.3.1Rawls and the veil of ignorance

One useful variety of rule utilitarianism was developed by political theorist John Rawls in the 1970s. His “theory of justice” argues that the promotion of social justice, rather than “happiness” or other vague good, should be the primary aim of all public policy, and he sets forth a novel way to think about making decisions that do so (1999). He poses a provocative mental exercise: Imagine that a group of individuals had gathered to determine the best social policies to adopt, but that they existed in a peculiar mental state: all of them had general knowledge about the world – physics, human psychology, geometry, chemistry – but they also suffered from particular ignorance. That is, they had no awareness of any features that distinguished one from another. They had no knowledge of their gender, their talents, their disabilities, etc. Rawls called this state the “veil of ignorance”. What kind of policies would people in such a state agree on? Behind the veil, he argued, the group would reject conventional utilitarian thinking, because all would be concerned about ending up in the minority once the veil was lifted and thus be possibly subjected to systematic discrimination. Ultimately, Rawls said, the group would agree on two key principles. First, every decision would be required to maximize the liberty of all to the extent possible. Behind the veil, aware that we could end up destitute and disabled or wealthy and successful once the veil is lifted, we would all make liberty a priority. Second, he said we would agree that in dealing with scarcity in the world, all “goods” would be “distributed” in ways that benefited the least advantaged in society (since all in the group would be keenly aware that anyone might end up as such once the veil is lifted). Since under his theory all actions are judged according to a certain standard – in his case, whether they promote justice – it can be considered an example of rule utilitarianism. We can see many examples of a Rawlsian approach to policy making. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is one such example; it requires that all buildings, both public and private, be designed to accommodate wheelchair-bound and other similarly disabled citizens. Similar policies can be pointed to in media ethics. Various industries, such as breakfast cereal manufacturers, have voluntarily agreed to scale back their use of media advertising that targets children with ads touting sugary products in recent years, since doing so can be considered exploitative of one of the most vulnerable segments of the population. Another example of a media ethics policy driven largely by Rawls’ framework is the journalistic practice of protecting the identity of rape victims in the coverage of criminal cases.

2Journalism ethics dilemmas

Several specific types of ethical questions and controversies regularly surface in journalism. Yet it should be clear from the preceding discussion that ethics theory provides no clear-cut solution to cases of the same type; indeed, ethicists often argue for very different resolutions among similar cases, depending on context and factors that may carry different weight according to different situations. It nonetheless is valuable to note several broad types of journalism ethics questions:

2.1Conflict of interest

Corporate and political conflicts of interest commonly raise questions of journalistic autonomy and adherence to ideals of public service. Such structural conflicts of commercial and journalistic interests have long been the subject of political economy, journalism studies, and other realms of scholarship as well (e.g., Herman & Chomsky 1988; Mellado et al. 2012). Conflicts of interest can also occur at the individual level, where the interests or values of a single journalist might tempt him or her to compromise his or her news judgments. Most journalistic policies require news workers to treat potential appearances of conflict of interest as just as much a threat to credibility as actual conflicts, and, in cases of the latter, to take explicit steps to acknowledge the conflict and to either minimize or eliminate it. In most cases, journalists are expected to recuse themselves from activities that might pose a journalistic conflict, since this maximizes their ability to carry out their Kantian duties to serve the public by being independent of other interests that might shape the news.

2.2Minimizing harm

The concept of harm can take many different forms, and journalists are regularly called upon to justify their decisions that arguably cause harm to individuals or groups. It is worth noting that there is a wide recognition that some amount of harm is inevitable in the course of journalistic public service. The ethics code adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists in the US, for instance, deliberately lists the directive of “minimizing harm” second to “seek the truth and report it”. The code does not call for journalists to “prevent” or “avoid” harm. There has been extensive work among media ethicists to conceptualize various dimensions of harm (e.g., Plaisance & Deppa 2009), including the dangers involved in covering tragedies and disasters (Amend, Kay & Reilly 2012), and how harm might be understood and addressed in virtual-reality situations (Vanacker & Heider 2011). Journalists in war zones and those covering sites of humanitarian tragedy have been challenged, for example, for their decisions to maintain their role as dispassionate witnesses to scenes of human suffering, rather than setting down their cameras and helping those in need. News organizations also have drawn criticism when disclosing secret or classified information that, in the course of informing the public, may arguably harm or undermine national interests.

2.3Privacy

There is wide agreement among sociologists and philosophers that everyone requires a degree of privacy to allow for self-development and to enable individuals to manage their multiple social roles. But even so, the ethical value of privacy is often misunderstood, and its social component ignored in many journalism controversies regarding privacy (Plaisance 2014). With the value of privacy regularly being contested, particularly in the era of Big Data (Robinson 2015) and in the face of growing potential of drones for newsgathering purposes (Culver 2014), journalists confront the dilemma of the extent to which respect for individual privacy should determine news coverage. While some scholars have argued that protecting privacy should never be considered the job of the journalist due to myriad and shifting definitions (Allen 2003), others emphasize that journalism that respects privacy can encourage civic participation and engagement. Ethics arguments frequently flare over when disclosure of personal information is merited as well as when story subjects arguably seek to dodge accountability by invoking questionable or ill-informed privacy claims.

2.4News frame effects

News content that may have negative effects on society frequently raise ethics questions. For example, psychologists have long warned of the “contagion” effect of coverage of suicide that focuses on the method of death and emotional state of the subject, which may prompt others in a similar emotional state to “copy” the story (Romer, Jamieson & Jamieson 2006). Journalists have embraced media guidelines for responsible coverage of suicide as a social-health issue rather than as spectacle. The way an issue in the news is “framed” by story narratives, using factors such as sourcing, point of view, emphasis, and description, can leave audiences with a particular understanding of that issue (Tewksbury & Scheufele 2009). Framing of hot-button topics such as gun violence, gender roles, or obesity can serve to emphasize or favor one perspective over another and thus raise ethical questions.

2.5Stereotypes

Relying on or perpetuating gender, racial, or ethnic stereotypes in news stories also can be considered a framing issue, and journalists must be mindful of inadvertent stereotyping (de Vreese 2004; Entman 1993). Expediency, narrative brevity, and the press of deadlines often discourage thoughtful considerations of the descriptions used for story subjects, be they local celebrities or police suspects. Research has suggested a consistent gender bias in news descriptions of physicality, emphasizing clothing items for women but not men, for example. Also, consistent focus on race often leaves skewed perceptions of crime patterns in the mind of the public (e.g., Iyengar 1991; Iyengar & Kidder 1987).

2.6Newsgathering techniques

What methods are justifiable in the collection of information valuable to the public? Classic what-ends-justify-the-means questions regularly confront journalists. While absolutist policies are rare, many news organizations refuse to pay for news or interviews, though tabloid outlets commonly do so. The primary ethical concern, of course, is that sources with a financial incentive may be tempted to embellish, alter, or even fabricate facts and events, thereby undermining the journalistic enterprise. In some developing countries such as Kenya, China, and India, money is regularly passed to individual journalists to curry favor and secure positive treatment. Such practices have cultural roots in the notion of community engagement and the value of cultivating communal indebtedness, and hence result in variations of journalists’ “ethical ideologies” within different cultures (Plaisance, Hanitzsch & Skewes 2012). With celebrity periodicals, where exposure has created its own competitive market among a finite pool of public figures, payment for attention has become more removed from objective newsworthiness standards. The use of deceptive tactics, such as hidden cameras, also raises ethical questions. Several journalistic organizations have adopted policies stating hidden cameras should be used only as a last resort and only when the information sought has high potential value for the public. Similar policies apply to journalists misrepresenting themselves to access information.

2.7Graphic images

The publication of photos that depict gore, violence, and suffering regularly raises ethical questions for news journalists. Such questions become particularly heated during times of war or conflict, and when patriotic sentiments may bring added pressure to bear on journalists to depict the “right” story and avoid using images that audiences might perceive to be demoralizing. Theorists such as Susan Sontag (2003) and Barbie Zelizer (2010) also explore more fundamental issues regarding the very nature of the image to enhance or undermine cognition and issue comprehension. Claims that graphic images can be offensive, harmful, or unnecessary clash with concerns that avoiding such images risks sanitizing or propagandizing the news, which can easily undermine journalistic credibility. As with other journalistic ethics issues, the controversies over the publication of graphic images reflect diametric approaches within ethics itself: A utilitarian concern focused on minimizing harmful consequences of a decision versus a deontological ethos that calls for depicting the news with courage and relying on audiences to make their own decisions about the value of such images.

3Prominent lines of theorizing

As all the above suggests, scholarship in journalism ethics is quite active on a wide range of issues and concepts. However, several prominent bodies of work have emerged that have attempted to serve as comprehensive framing of these issues and to advocate for specific types of scholarship to move the field forward. Four such prominent lines of theorizing are briefly summarized here.

3.1Philosophical anthropology

Calling for a “universalism from the ground up” (2013: 281), pioneering media ethics scholar Clifford Christians has indelibly shaped the field over the last three decades by insisting that media theorizing must resist and refute relativistic thinking. He has urged a universal ethic based on what he calls the protonorm of the sacredness of human life. Recognition and embrace of this “pretheoretical” value of human community, he writes, is the first critical step in constructing an ethic of being that simultaneously prioritizes central ethical concepts of respect, minimizing harm, and ensuring human flourishing, yet also accommodates a plurality of cultural expressions of those values. “Reverence for life on earth establishes a level playing field for cross-collaboration on the ethical foundations of a responsible press”, Christians writes (2013: 281). His anthropological agenda also rejects any moral absolutism approach, and Christians draws extensively on the works of a diverse cast of thinkers through history, including Georg Gadamer, Martha Nussbaum, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hans Jonas (Christians 2011; Christians & Traber 1997).

3.2Neo-Aristotelian naturalism

Other media ethics theorists have coalesced around a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics framework that, much like the anthropological approach, focuses on a telos of human flourishing, yet does so by drawing on the ethical naturalism of philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Alasdair MacIntyre. This naturalism frames moral and normative claims as straightforward matters of natural fact and grounds ethics in human nature and in what is involved in being a good human being. Stephen Klaidman and Tom Beauchamp (1987) first articulated how virtue ethics should inform journalistic professional norms and behavior. Aaron Quinn echoed this effort, arguing journalists’ cultivation of “internal” values was an essential complement to external ethical standards (2007). In her landmark work published that same year, Sandra Borden elegantly argued for a conceptualization of journalism as a virtue-based practice in MacIntyre’s sense of that term. Other advocates of a virtue ethics approach in journalism ethics include Nick Couldry (2013) and Patrick Plaisance (2013).

3.3Post-Enlightenment contractualism

In another approach that rejects moral absolutism and seeks to ground journalism ethics in lived experience, the work of Stephen Ward has advocated for a contractualist view, claiming that “ethical principles are humanly constructed restraints on social behavior” (2005: 6). These principles, he suggests, cannot always be reduced to simple universally applicable truths. One such principle is the notion of journalistic objectivity, which he argues is a “spent ethical force” (2004: 261) and should be replaced by what he calls a “pragmatic objectivity” that frames truth as “a goal of inquiry and redefines truth in a modest, realist manner” (2004: 271). Ward’s framework clearly draws from some neo-Aristotelian concepts such as flourishing, and it seeks to articulate the possibility of a robust “global” ethics that recognizes pluralistic cultural values yet also insists that all societies have an interest in cultivating journalism structures that value fair and rational deliberation as a social good.

3.4Moral psychology

Finally, in contrast with the abstract thrust of these three bodies of work, other scholars have called for a more systematic application of moral psychology theories and methodologies to build a more complete picture of journalistic moral decision-making. Such research arguably provides a necessary opportunity to develop an interpretive ethic that incorporates knowledge from moral psychology and neuroethics to better understand environmental-, organizational-, and individual-level factors that help or hinder virtuous work in journalism. This approach is central to the work of Plaisance (2015), as well as that of Lee Wilkins and Renita Coleman (2005), and elements of moral psychology also have informed international journalism studies projects (Plaisance, Hanitzsch & Skewes 2012). It draws on theories of self-identity, moral motivation, and moral development, and harnesses the power of empirical instruments to measure moral reasoning skills, ethical ideology, personality traits, and the ethical “climate” of organizations, and a range of other factors. Also located at the intersection of moral philosophy and behavioural science is the field of neuroethics, where theorists are exploring the connections between brain biology and the “moral mind” (Wilkins 2010).

Further reading

For evolutionary perspectives on the emergence and development of journalistic norms and standards, a good place to start is the landmark work by Dicken-Garcia (1989). Schudson (1978) and Ward (2004) provide competing perspectives on the evolution of Western journalistic standards. Valuable commentary on journalism ethical standards across the globe are provided in collections edited by Ward (2013), Ward and Wasserman (2010), and Couldry, Madianou and Pinchevski (2013). For a more empirical comparison of intercultural journalism standards, see Plaisance, Hanitzsch, and Skewes (2012). The work of Fullerton and Patterson (2015, 2016) offer a detailed intercultural comparison of journalism norms and assumptions.

Several scholars present helpful explorations of questions of journalistic duty. In a pair of essays, Christopher Meyers (2003, 2011) lays out how the deontological work of W. D. Ross provides a helpful framework for mediating among conflicting duties. Works that provide philosophical examinations of more specific duties include Gauthier (2010) on privacy and Plaisance (2007) on transparency. Turning to virtue ethics, Borden provides a definitive account of its application to journalism practices. Christians, Fackler and Ferré (2012) provide a collection of case studies from media around the world to illustrate communitarianism in action. And there are several valuable collections of journalism ethics case studies that provide both critiques of behavior and guidelines for decision-making, including Boeyink and Borden (2010), Zion and Craig (2015), and Peck and Reel (2017).

Looking toward the future journalism ethics theorizing, Christians (2013) provides a useful overview of what he suggests are the most promising lines of inquiry. These include applications of developments in neuroscience (Wilkins, 2010, 2011), the contractualist framework promoted by Ward (2010), and the moral psychology approach by Plaisance (2015).

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