6. Media Ethics

Ethics involves what is right, equitable, fair, just, dutiful and responsible.

Ethical practice is as important in media as it is in any other walk of life with high levels of public impact.

It’s especially important to emphasize ethics when studying media law, since what is legal is sometimes not what is ethical.

Legal / ethical contradictions include:

  • Crime victim ID:  The names of witnesses to and victims of a crime are public, and it may be perfectly legal to disclose them before a trial. But this could be highly unethical, since it exposes the witness to intimidation or worse.  Even when a public trial is held, journalists usually withhold the names of juvenile offenders and rape victims even though they are matters of public record.
  • Classified info:  It may be illegal to publish certain “classified” (secret) information about a government agency’s mistakes, and yet there are cases where journalists go ahead and publish because they are following their ethical duty to serve as watchdogs on government.
  • Ads and body image: Some kinds of advertising may be perfectly legal and yet push social boundaries and images into ethically unacceptable directions.  The tendency to emphasize extremely thin and unhealthy body shapes for women is often considered unethical.
  • Ads and truthfulness:  It may be illegal or contrary to FTC or FCC regulations to fabricate information in advertising,  yet social critics like Adbusters and Yes Men do it for reasons they believe are highly ethical, such as poking fun at tobacco advertising or the lack of corporate accountability on environmental issues.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of ethical complexities people in the media face.  So it’s important to understand professional ethical codes that might help deal with these issues.  But its also important to understand some of the ethical principles that are the  foundation of these professional codes.

The consequences of ethical behavior are usually profound. Although unethical behavior may seem to help people rise more quickly in their fields, people with a strong sense of ethics have more stable, stronger careers.

You need to be prepared for ethical challenges in your job. Professionals who do not follow professional ethics – even if they break no law – may be fired from their jobs. Sometimes editors or managers will ask subordinates to do things that are unethical either to test them or to find an office scapegoat. In either case, the practical approach (question the order, discuss the order in the light of ethical codes (see below), get the order in writing, protest to a supervisor, or to begin looking for other jobs) is usually sufficient.

Generally, a discussion of ethics involves ethical traditions, religious traditions and moral principles. Some would argue that ethics cannot be taught — a person is either ethical or is not ethical. While it is true that a sense of ethics may vary in strength from person to person, a complete lack of ethics or compassion is considered to be a symptom of mental illness. The sense of ethics is very much like the desire for freedom. Nearly everyone has a desire to be free. We don’t try to teach freedom, but we do try to understand the legal systems that protect personal freedom while balancing the interests of others. Similarly, we try to understand ethical systems and principles, almost like tools, for coping with challenges on a professional basis.


Philosophical traditions — virtue, consequence, duty, justice and bioethics

When we are confronted with an ethical dilemma, we often use a combination of ethical tools to understand the situation and judge what is best to do. We think about our duty, about the impact on other people, about whether an action is virtuous or just or potentially prejudiced. Understanding the range of ethical tools helps us approach ethical challenges in a more thoughtful way. These philosophical traditions in ethics have emerged in various epochs of human history. Virtue ethics is from classical civilizations; Consequence and Duty ethics emerged in the Enlightenment period; Justice ethics emerged in the mid-20th century; and Bioethics became a major ethical topic in the late 20th century.

Virtue ethics: A person’s long term happiness can only be found through virtue, or being good. At the center of this Greek tradition of ethics was the value of using human reason to get beyond appeals to authoritity or circular religious arguments.

  • Plato emphasized the ideal. His allegory of the cave was meant to show that we live in a world of illusion and that we must often shed our illusions to find the truth.
  • Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics held that reason could be used to create happiness (human telos) and would give us moral and intellectual virtues. The moral virtues include moderation, courage and magnanimity; the intellectual virtues include art, science and philosophical wisdom.
  • Epicurian and Stoic traditions of ethics followed both traditions. The Golden Mean, the idea that we should seek moderation in all things and that good is usually found between the extremes, is an Epicurian ethical ideal.

Consequence ethics involves considering the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So, in other words, the virtue of an action is determined by its outcome. However, taken to its extreme, the greatest good for the majority might be very bad for a minority. This is also called utilitarianism.

Duty ethics (also called deontological ethics, from deon, or duty) bases ethical decisions on adherence to rules.  Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that we should do what would be right if everyone did it. He called this the categorical imperative. Its not the consequences that make and action right or wrong, but whether they conform to a greater good.

Immanuel Kant described the categorical imperative with three basic axioms:

  • Act only according to a maxim (rule) that you would also want to become a  universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Act as though you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

Justice ethics stems from the work of John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice was conceived as a new alternative to utilitarian and duty ethics. The idea is that social choices should be made in non-selfserving way from an unbiased original position or “veil of ignorance.” One example would be the division of estate property among the sons and daughters of a recently deceased parent. Those who divide the property would be the last to chose which portion they would be able to inherit.

When you see well-to-do financial-industry types … with a glint of discomfort and even fear in their eyes — wondering if this thing may just spin out of control — you know that Occupy Wall Street is having a visceral impact. But if you want a philosophy that explains why the matter of the 99 percent and the 1 percent has deservedly struck such a nerve, you need to go back to John Rawls.

The way to create the rules for a just society, Rawls argued in his 1971 masterwork, “A Theory of Justice,” is to first imagine everyone in an “original position” behind a pre-birth “veil of ignorance,” where no one knows what their own traits will be — whether they will be rich or poor, beautiful or plain, smart or less so, talented or not, healthy or unwell. Then you’d see what kind of social order people would agree in advance was fair, if they couldn’t know what place they were destined to occupy in it. Matt Miller, “Justice, inequality and the 99 percent,” Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2011.

Bioethics are also called environmental ethics or the “Land Ethic” was a movement to broaden the scope of virtue, consequence, justice and duty ethics from the purely human realm to other living things and the web of life. Aldo Leopold was one early proponent whose book, The Land Ethic, extended the ethical sense.

For instance, in Metaphysics of Morals, Kant said that people have a duty to avoid cruelty to animals. This was because cruelty deadens the feeling of compassion in people, and not because non-rational beings have moral worth. This would have been a typical idea of the 1700s. However, environmental ethics emerging in the late 20th century would include animals and the web of life as having moral worth in their own right.

Religious traditions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam 

Buddhist Eightfold path: (Right views, Right aspirations, Right speech, Right conduct, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness, and Right meditational attainment).

Christian – Includes the Golden Rule (Love your neighbor; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; turn the other cheek; ) and the concept of avoiding sin.

HinduAhimsa, do no harm to any living thing

Islamic – “Surrender” to the will of God

Jewish Ten Commandments (also Christian and Islamic)


Note that there is a great deal of overlap and interaction between these faiths.  For example, Christianity isn’t the only (or even necessarily the original) source of the Golden Rule — it is often found in other religions. Also note that not all religions are represented here. Other major religions include Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Wicca.

For more information see Robert Cavalier’s Online Guide to Ethics and Philosophy.


Describing moral principles in neutral terms

When making these difficult moral choices, sometimes its helpful to discuss basic principles in neutral language that transcends religious or traditional ethics. According to Gerald Corey, Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions, (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1999), terms for basic principles found in ethical traditions are:

  • Autonomy / people make their own choices without manipulation
  • Nonmaleficence / do no harm
  • Benificence / help people
  • Justice / fairness, treat all people alike
  • Fidelity / honor commitment to those you serve
  • Veracity / truthfulness

Ethical Orientation (personal orientation or “ultimate loyalty”) – Which of these describes your ethical orientation?

Ethical Orientation

Communitarian Libertarian
Egalitarian Elitist
Altrusitic Individualistic
Social Conservative Social Liberal
Economic Liberal Economic Conservative

Ethical orientation or ultimate loyalty is another way to look at how individuals and cultures view ethical behavior.

Ask yourself: Are you oriented towards the greater good of the community or the greater good of individuals? Who bears the ultimate value — the individual or the community? This is not to say that either orientation is ethical or unethical. Instead, your orientation is a deeply seated psychological attribute that helps you make decisions about ethics.

Outgoing, communitarian people may be more concerned with the greater good of the whole group, while introspective people may be more concerned with personal liberties. The question is also cultural: Generally, eastern cultures are more community oriented, valuing harmony over individualism, while western cultures cherish individual liberties — quite often at the expense of social harmony.

In either case, these orientations are not mutually exclusive. Nearly all people and societies have at least some concern for both individuals and communities.

Either of the two orientations, taken to the extreme, can produce social dysfunctions. An extremely libertarian society may have great inequities in wealth and resources. An extremely communitarian society may stifle freedom and initiative.

Professional Ethics

All professionals have specific ethical codes based on long  tradition. Probably the best known is the Hippocratic Oath in which a physician vows “to abstain from doing harm”  (more commonly  phrased as “first, do no harm.”)

Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says that the media should “minimize harm” and have “compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” Reporters, editors, broadcasters, advertising executives and others in the mass media need to understand and rely on ethical codes to guide them. Journalists are ethically bound to seek the truth, to act independently and to serve the public interest.

Advertising and public relations professionals are also ethically bound to tell the truth in the  AAF  and PRSA code of ethics.

The best overview of media ethics comes from the 1947 Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press. The commission found five basic “requirements” for all media:

  • The media should provide a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.
  • The media should serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
  • The media should project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.
  • The media should present and clarify the goals and values of the society.
  • The media should provide full access to the day’s intelligence.

JOURNALISM has a very strong ethical code, including prescriptive advice to seek the truth and report it; to act independently; and to be accountable. It also has proscriptive advice, such as minimize harm, don’t plagiarize, don’t take money from sources, don’t lie, dont be afraid of criticism.

Journalism codes include:


Prescriptive: Tell the truth, substantiate all claims, follow the law and regulations (eg Federal Trade Commission and others)

Proscriptive: Don’t lie, don’t cheat people, don’t offend good taste or public decency.

Advertising codes include:


Content ethics not that different from journalism, although the fact/ opinion separation is often not as strong. This media may involve photography, journalism and advertising.

Special problems involve issues like setting cookies, collecting and selling data, nuisance issues like interstitial advertising, and questions about copyright.

IT and Web codes include:

Other media ethics links: