6. Media Ethics

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

Many people will scoff at the idea of media  ethics, calling it a contradiction in terms, like military intelligence, honest lawyers or jumbo shrimp.    But in fact, ethical  practice is as important in media as it is in any other walk of life with high levels of public impact.  Journalists, advertising executives, filmmakers, public relations practitioners, and others in the media are expected to be ethical. They  have professional obligations which they would ignore only at great peril to others as well as themselves.  There are some obvious things here – don’t lie, for example — as well as some not so obvious ones.

Media ethics is informed by the general study of ethics and morality;  by principles of responsibility for professional actions;  and also by various professional codes.   Let’s take a quick look at those and then go in depth.

1. Ethics as a general area of study  — Here were are mostly concerned with normative ethics, that is, the study of standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions.  These areas of ethics involve  ethical traditions, religious traditions and moral principles. 

2. Principles of responsibility ranging in seriousness from war crimes to problems with the free flow of international information —  The Nuremberg principles,  the Rwanda and former Yugoslavia war crimes tribunals  — represent international laws that prohibit members of the media from complicity in crimes against humanity.   Other general principles of media responsibility have been described in the Hutchins and MacBride commissions.

3. Professional codes, especially the codes of ethics of the  Society of Professional Journalists, the American Advertising Federation, and the Public Relations Society of America.

Why study ethics?  

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, long-lasting 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 or demoted. 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.

Some would argue that ethics cannot be taught — a person is either ethical or is not ethical.  But others say that view is uninformed.   While it is true that the 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 some desire to be free. We don’t teach freedom per se, but we do try to understand the legal systems that protect personal freedom while balancing the interests of others. Similarly, we don’t teach people to acquire a sense of ethics, but rather, to try to understand ethical systems and principles for coping with challenges on a personal and professional basis. Or, to put it in a different perspective,  even if you check your moral compass,  you still need to plot a course.


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 value of an action is determined by its outcome.This is also called utilitarianism. There are problems with utilitarianism, especially in that it doesn’t include ideas of justice or duty. Taken to its extreme, the greatest good for the majority might be very bad for a minority.

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-self serving 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.  One source of bioethics was Aldo Leopold’s 1946 book  “Land Ethic” in which he projected a broadening of  the scope of virtue, consequence, justice and duty ethics from the purely human realm to other living things and the entire web of life.  This was not entirely new.  For instance, in Metaphysics of Morals, Kant said that people have a duty to avoid cruelty to animals. But Kant said this was because cruelty deadens the feeling of compassion in people, and not because non-rational beings have moral worth. That would have been a typical idea of the 1700s (and acceptable as part of ethical pragmatism).

Another source of bioethics was the reaction to human medical experiments in the US and Germany in the 1920s – 40s, including Nazi concentration camp experiments, the US Tuskegee experiment, the Milgram experiment, and others.  One reaction was the establishment of human subjects review committees in most universities and scientific research institutions in the US.

Also, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was established in 1974 to identify the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of research.  The Belmont Report (1979), partly an outgrowth of the commission, listed principles such as  autonomy, beneficence and justice. Later,  non-maleficence, human dignity and the sanctity of life were added to this list of cardinal values.

Animal rights and genetic rights are other areas of concern for bioethics.  In India, Vandana Shiva  is a bioethicist from the Hindu tradition who is concerned about corporations and the misuse of genetic resources, similar debates crop up in Africa and in Latin America.  Throughout the developing world,  underdevelopment and geopolitical power relations are the context in which bioethics concerns may arise. These can include anything from medical tests on unsuspecting populations to dumping of toxic wastes to patenting of plant to the privatization of water supplies.  This leads to questions that were initially raised in the MacBride report about the flow of information about bioethical issues in developing countries.


Ib. 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.

Ic. 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.

Ii. principles of responsibility 

During the 2oth century, a new appreciation for the social and ethical  responsibilities of the mass media emerged with an understanding of its power.

The Nuremberg Principles–  A set of guidelines for determining what constitutes a war crime, the Nuremberg Principles emerged from the post-WWII trials of Nazi government officials and their accomplices in the mass media.  Especially important from the media standpoint is Principle VII which states, “Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity … is a crime under international law.”

In one important case,  Julius Streicher,  editor of Dur Sturmer, was executed in 1946 for his 25-year advocacy of genocide against Jewish people which was instrumental in fueling the hatred of the Holocaust.  Streicher  was not a member of the military and was not physically involved in the Holocaust.  But  his media role was so important that he was included in  the indictment of Major War Criminals of World War II.

Others who made films for the Nazis were imprisoned.  Leni Rheifenstahl, whose 1936  Triumph of the Will   was a celebration of a Nazi rally, spent three years in detention.  Fritz Hipper, who made The Eternal Jew  in 1939 for the Nazis, spent two years in prison as a war criminal.  (For more information see the  Nuremberg Trials documentary.)

Similarly, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda  held the media accountable. — The newspaper Kangura, published in Rwanda in the early 1990s, advocated genocide of Tutsi people. In 1994, an estimated 800,000 were killed by Hutus at the urging of Kangura and Radio Rwanda. Kangura’s editor, Hassan Ngeze, along with broadcast colleagues, was convicted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment, reaffirming the international legal principle that leaders of the mass media organizations can be held responsible for inciting genocide.

Those, of course, are the extreme cases. But how have we defined social responsibility in the day-to-day work of the mass media? Perhaps the four most influential are the Hutchins Commission, the MacBride Commission (next page), the SPJ Code of Ethics, and Jurgen Habermas’ ideas about equitable communication in the public sphere.

The Hutchins Commission — During and after World War II, questions about press responsibility led to a commission financed by Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce. Leading the commission was Robert Maynard Hutchins, then chancellor at the University of Chicago, whose ideas about education had focused on communication as central to a lifetime of learning. The Hutchins Commission found that freedom of expression had been imperiled by accelerating technology and by arrogant and irresponsible publishers. The commission urged publishers to “regard themselves as common carriers of information and discussion” and recommended five major points that it said society was entitled to demand of its press:

  1. a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning;
  2.   a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism;
  3.   the projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society;
  4.   the presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society; and
  5.   full access to the day’s intelligence.

“Where freedom of expression exists, the beginnings of a free society and a means for every extension of liberty are already present. Free expression is therefore unique among liberties: it promotes and protects all the rest,” the commission said.    

While the Hutchins Commission noted the importance of projecting a representative image of all social groups in the United States, a very non-representative set of images of people from the rest of the world are often presented in the U.S.  Americans, more than people in most other countries, are highly insulated from global events.

Part of the problem is that U.S. news coverage usually emphasizes simple events such as coups and earthquakes. Very little real depth or analysis comes through most of the mainstream media.   Another problem is that there has been a steep decline in overall global news in US  television and newspaper reporting.  This problem has been getting much worse in recent years with the financial collapse of the news business.

Another issue has to do with what is called media “hegemony” — that is, the indirect dominance of one culture over another.  The major event in the discussion of the issue was the UNESCO report of 1980:

The UNESCO MacBride Commission report  Many Voices, One World, by a Commission on International Communication for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was chaired by Nobel Laureate Seán  MacBride. The commission said that the communications revolution had created dangers as well as opportunities.
The unequal flow of communication was making developing nations dependent on the cultural products of the industrial West. Centuries-old customs, time-honored cultural practices and simple life styles were being threatened.  The one-way flow of information from industrial nations to developing nations was also a problem, the report said. News about the developing world in North American and Europe was dominated by spot reports on disasters and military coups, but the underlying realities and developments were ignored.

Recommendations included:

  • More professional international training for journalists on both sides of the divide between industrial and developing nations.
  • Protection of journalists and freedom of the press.
  • Small nations should foster internal media development, have more control over the cultural processes of modernization and find ways to reduce the commercialization of communication.

iii. 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.

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:

Legal / ethical contradictions include:    

For the media, ethics is not always cut and dried.What is legal is sometimes not what is ethical.

  • 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.