This module is a resource for lecturers
Journalism has long been considered a pillar of democracy, given its function of communicating vital information to the public regarding institutions and individuals in positions of power. An informed citizenry is critical for good governance and essential for exposing and preventing corruption. This assumes that the information is accurate, truthful and non-biased. Indeed, these are some of the ethical responsibilities of media professionals that the Module explores. The discussions are relevant to all students who are media consumers and wish to understand what ethical obligations they can expect media professionals to uphold. In addition to consuming media, many students play an active role in the production of media, especially social media. Therefore, after discussing the ethical obligations of media professionals, the Module proceeds to address the responsibility of all individuals to practice ethical behaviour in the creation and dissemination of social media. The Module first examines key terms and concepts.
Terms and concepts
Two key concepts used in this Module are "media" and "ethics." The word ethics comes from the Greek ethos, which means character, or what a good person is or does to have good character. The concept of ethics is explored in detail in Integrity and Ethics Module 1 (Introduction and Conceptual Framework), which introduces students to Richard Norman's definition of ethics: "the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct" (Norman, 1988, p. 1). Media is defined by the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as "the system and organizations of communication through which information is spread to a large number of people". A more current and relatable definition for students is provided by Dictionary.com, which defines media as "the means of communication, [such] as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely".
The concept of "media ethics" refers broadly to the proper standards of conduct that media providers and disseminators should attempt to follow. With modern technology and increased globalization in today's world, there are many more branches of media than there were in earlier times in history. These new media forms trigger new ethical issues. For example, today many ethical issues arise in relation to the Internet, which did not exist just 40 years ago. As a result of the wide range of media platforms and vast accessibility, different issues may surface depending upon the branch of media in question.
Technology has also led to the emergence of so-called to "citizen journalists" as people are recording, photographing and videotaping newsworthy events as they unfold (Bulkley, 2012). Citizen journalists further compound media ethics issues and will be discussed in one of the exercises. An underlying theme in the subject of media ethics across many different branches of media is the potential conflict between the standards for ethical behaviour and companies' desire for profit. This and similar issues are discussed in Module 11 (Business Integrity and Ethics), which delves deeper into ethical issues confronting private sector actors, and Module 14 (Professional Ethics), which discusses the issues of professional codes of ethics and role morality.
It is important for students to grasp that conflicts of interest exist across many domains within the media and assess what ethical standards are required for journalists, consumers, and companies or individuals who play a role in the provision and dissemination of information to the public. As all parties involved must adhere to ethical standards, this Module considers the ethical principles for both media professionals and non-professionals who engage in creation and dissemination of media. It then allows students to holistically engage in the material through exercises.
Ethical principles for journalists and other media providers
While the Module considers ethical obligations of both media professionals and non-professionals, it should be noted that media professionals are held to higher ethical standards compared to non-professionals. They have duties to provide society with accurate, truthful and non-biased information. Media professionals have ethical obligations towards society simply by virtue of their activities as journalists, reporters, anchors, or owners of media corporations. The role of the media in contemporary times is affected by the commercialization and diversity of media actors, which include grass roots and independent media, corporate media, advocacy groups, consolidated media companies, state-owned and privatized media. Media ethical obligations apply to all of these.
Many media houses, online platforms, professional associations and other organizations have developed ethical codes for journalists. Over 400 ethical codes for journalists have been adopted worldwide, many of which can be accessed at the database of the Accountable Journalism Site. The Code of Principles adopted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in 1954 has been regarded as a universal statement about ethics in journalism. According to the IFJ Code, the core values of journalism are truth, independence and the need to minimise harm. Another influential ethics code for journalists is the one adopted in 2014 by the U.S.-based Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The SPJ Code of Ethics is available in numerous languages including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Its Preamble states that "an ethical journalist acts with integrity" and the code has four foundational principles that call on journalists to: (1) seek truth and report it, (2) minimize harm, (3) act independently, and (4) be accountable and transparent. Under each principle, the SPJ Code of Ethics contains further guidance and calls on journalists to approach their work with the highest standard of ethics in mind. These principles, which are discussed in further detail below, apply to traditional journalism as well as modern forms of social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. While some of the examples below are from the SPJ Code, they apply universally since similar principles and values are embraced by journalism codes around the world.
(1) "Seek truth and report it"
With regard to the first principle (seek truth and report it), the SPJ Code calls on journalists to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, confirm information before releasing it, and rely on original sources whenever possible. The Code promotes and encourages journalists to use their work to facilitate greater transparency of those in power. For example, the Code requires that journalists be persistent and brave in their constant effort to hold those in power accountable. Journalists, according to the SPJ Code, must provide a platform for those in society who may not have a voice. It also states that journalists should be supportive of open and civil dialogue in which different points of view are exchanged, even if the journalists themselves find those views objectionable. Journalists have a special responsibility to be watchdogs over the government and public affairs. Furthermore, journalists should endeavour to ensure the transparency of public records and public business. In this sense, the SPJ Code appears to promote the idea that journalists owe a duty to the public to provide accurate information, to facilitate open access and transparency of the government and other individuals in authoritative positions, and to provide those without a voice in society the opportunity to speak and share their beliefs, perspectives, and experiences.
Experts on media ethics echo the value and importance of truth-seeking by journalists. Journalists and news organizations should be truthful and their reporting should accurately represent the issues or stories being reported. However, with this in mind, it is also critically important that journalists maintain respect for individual privacy while seeking the truth. At times, the individual's right to privacy may clash with the public's need to know information. There are ethical obligations on both sides of every decision and therefore journalists face difficult choices.
(2) "Minimize harm"
The drafters of the SPJ Code emphasize under the second principle that journalists must also minimize harm that could be caused by their reporting and that ethical journalism demands that sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public are treated as human beings deserving of respect. As such, journalists should consider individual privacy rights as well as the impact their reporting may have on individuals in general. The Code states that journalists must show compassion for individuals who may be affected by news coverage, which may include juveniles or victims of crimes. Journalists should also be mindful of cultural differences when reflecting on the ways in which news or information may be received. The Code advises journalists to show "heightened sensitivity" in these circumstances (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014).
The tension between the competing goals of publishing information for the greater good of the public and refraining from sharing such information in order to protect individual privacy rights raises ethical questions and requires journalists to consider and weigh various factors in these strategic decisions. Harm to the individual may take the form of invasion of privacy or the dissemination of information that offends or damages him or her in some way.
In these decisions, journalists may consider various schools of thought, including virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontology (Ess, 2013, p. 262), which are discussed in Integrity and Ethics Module 1. The basic premise of utilitarianism is that the morality of an action depends on whether it maximizes overall social 'utility' (or happiness). More specifically, utilitarianism is the idea that the goal of an action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness for the largest number of people (see Module 1 for further explanation and sources).
Utilitarianism can either justify the release of information to the public despite a slight violation of privacy rights, or it can justify the withholding of information in order to protect privacy rights in certain circumstances. Utilitarianism can justify individual privacy, and correlatively, property rights, insofar as these things lead to the greatest happiness for the largest number of people, as opposed to just that individual. Utilitarianism can be used to justify sacrificing the privacy of a few individuals if it would facilitate greater access to information for the general public.
Deontologists, on the other hand, present a competing perspective. They provide a more straightforward defence of individual privacy rights, because these rights are arguably necessary to our basic existence and practices as autonomous moral agents. Thus, deontologists would favor the protection of individual privacy over the release of information that would serve the greater good to the detriment of the individual. Deontology is also defined in Module 1. Its basic premise, according to that Module, is that morality depends on conformity to certain principles or duties irrespective of the consequences. Therefore, the deontologists' response to this question in media ethics would be that we should not violate individual privacy rights of others, as we would not want our own privacy rights violated.
These competing perspectives inform approaches to questions in media ethics and are particularly relevant when addressing questions of protecting individual privacy and minimizing harm to the individual, on the one hand, and serving the greater public good on the other.
(3) "Act independently"
Journalists are also called on to act independently, which is the third principle outlined in the SPJ Code. Under this principle, the drafters of the Code emphasize that the primary responsibility of ethical journalism is to serve the public (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014, footnote 6). As such, journalists must put the public first and reject any special treatment to advertisers, donors, or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage. This requires journalists to refuse gifts and to avoid any conflicts of interest.
An example of conduct that falls short of the principle to act independently occurred in Canada in 2015. Leslie Roberts, a news anchor for Global Toronto, a news agency in Canada, resigned from his position at the network due to serious allegations of conflict of interest (Global News, 2015). Roberts publicly admitted that he was secretly a part owner of a public relations firm whose clients appeared on Global News programmes. Mr. Roberts never informed Global News management of his connection to the public relations firm. Such a conflict of interest raises serious ethical concerns, as the media has a duty to provide unbiased and independent information. If an anchor and news agency are presenting information to the public that is skewed by preference in guests on the show who are perhaps incentivized to send a certain message to the public, the duty of presenting the truth has been violated. This conduct flies in the face of the principle of acting independently laid out in the Code.
Another example of conduct that falls short of the principle that journalists should act independently is the handing out of "brown envelopes" containing large amounts of cash to journalists at press briefings, in exchange for publishing their stories. This trend of "brown envelope" journalism is fundamentally opposed to the principle of independence in journalism and allows the media to present skewed, or biased, information to the public (Nwaubani, 2015).
(4) "Be accountable and transparent"
The SPJ Code advises journalists that they must be accountable and transparent, which is the fourth principle. Journalists should explain ethical choices and processes to audiences and should recognize and publicly acknowledge any mistakes. They should also correct these mistakes promptly and prominently. In the example referred to above, Leslie Roberts came to recognize that journalists have a duty to expose unethical conduct in journalism to the public, including any behaviour within their own organizations, as the Code also states that ethical journalism means "taking responsibility for one's work and explaining one's decision to the public." Global News recognized the unethical conduct of Mr. Roberts and made the following statement after Mr. Roberts resigned: "Global News remains committed to balanced and ethical journalism produced in the public's interest." Global News also made public Mr. Roberts' letter of resignation, in which he acknowledged that his own unethical conduct was the cause of his resignation from the network and apologized by stating: "I regret the circumstances, specifically a failure to disclose information, which led to this outcome" (Global News, 2015). The morally upstanding way in which Global News handled this conflict of interest is one that preserves the principles laid out in the Code and upholds the high standards of behaviour for journalists that are a fundamental part of any discussion on media ethics.
In summary, journalists have a duty to (1) seek the truth and report it, (2) disseminate information in a way that minimizes harm to the public, (3) act independently in providing such information, and (4) be accountable and transparent in the process. These ethical duties of journalists are fundamental concepts in media ethics.
A fifth ethical duty or principle that can be discussed in class is the concept of objectivity. Long considered a norm in journalism, objectivity is currently the subject of significant debate. That debate tends to recognize transparency to be a preferable principle. While human beings may never be truly objective, we can at least disclose our frames of reference. In her article Objectivity and Journalism: Should We Be Skeptical? , Alexandra Kitty elaborates further on this idea (2017).
Ethical principles for citizen journalists and media consumers
While the most widely known ethical obligations in the world of media are those owed by journalists to the public, individuals who are not media professionals still have a responsibility to act with integrity in their use and consumption of media.
To illustrate this obligation, this Module will first look at the case of people who are often referred to as "citizen journalists." These people are not media professionals. Often, they are simply bystanders with a smart phone. However, these people sometimes have access to unfolding events that traditional journalists do not always have. Because of the global nature of social media, they are able to share their recordings and photos with a nearly limitless number of people. Examples of this phenomenon were seen when thousands of people on the ground were posting their experiences online during Hurricane Sandy of 2012, the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, the Paris terror attacks of 2015, and various global conflicts. While this was helpful in many ways, it also led to the spread of dangerous rumours and untrue statements.
Ordinary citizens should never be discouraged from sharing what they see. However, the increased power of their position due to social media platforms creates an ethical duty to act with care. Citizen journalists should strive to possess the same integrity that is expected from the professional news media. This means asking questions such as the following before sharing material online:
- Is what I am posting accurate?
- Have my sources of information been verified?
- Will anyone be harmed by sharing this information?
After all, the goal of citizen journalists should be to contribute to a better societal understanding of whatever they are reporting. This standard does not only apply to people who are posting online about ongoing events, but also to those who are blogging or creating content in any way.
The ethical obligations of users of social media also deserve attention. While social media users may not always be creating new content, they still often make decisions about which content to share with others. Unlike in the print media of the past, much of the media now published online is no longer clearly demarcated as news or opinion. Ads often resemble statements of fact and articles frequently do not list a writer or source. This confusion can be seen in the discussions globally regarding the issue of "fake news."
In the United States, a poll published by the Pew Research Center on 16 December 16 2016, shortly after the U.S. elections, showed that 23 percent of respondents had shared a made-up news story on social media, either knowingly or not. According to the same poll, 64 percent of respondents said that the phenomenon of fake news had caused significant confusion regarding current events.
Sharing and promoting these stories on social media may not only cause confusion, but it may also be harmful. Rumours and mistruths can damage reputations and even put others in danger. While one person sharing a false story may go unnoticed, there is often a collective impact.
The ethical course of action for social media users is to refrain from contributing to the spread of misinformation. In order to avoid this, social media users must critically evaluate content before sharing.
To assess the credibility of an article or story, social media users should ask themselves questions similar to the following:
- Who is the source? The author?
- Is the writer asserting fact or opinion?
- Does the piece contain sources or quotes that can be verified?
- Does the piece use language intended to provoke emotional reactions?
Studies show that members of the public have significant difficulty in assessing the credibility of content on social media. Knowing this, it is even more important to think about the ethical implications of what we share online.
To conclude, this Module illustrates that media ethics applies to all of us, whether or not we intend to become media professionals. With this in mind, the following section suggests class activities through which students can engage with the issues discussed above.
- Barthel, Michael, Amy Mitchell and Jesse Holcomb (2016). Many Americans believe fake news is sowing confusion. Pew Research Center: Journalism and Media, 15 December.
- Bulkley, Kate (2012). The rise of citizen journalism. The Guardian, 10 June.
- Ess, Charles M. (2013). Global media ethics? Issues, requirements, challenges, resolutions. Stephen J.A. Ward, In Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives, Stephen J.A.Ward, ed.Chichester, Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.
- Global News (2015). Leslie Roberts resigns from Global News in wake of internal investigation, 15 January.
- Kitty, Alexandra (2017). Objectivity and Journalism: Should We Be Skeptical?
- Norman, Richard (1998). The Moral Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Nwaubani, Adaobi Tricia (2015). Nigeria's 'brown envelope' journalism. BBC News, 5 March.
- Society of Professional Journalists (2014). SPJ code of ethics, 6 September.
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