Media Ethics: Journalism, Controversies, Problems, Dilemmas

What is the right action? What ought not to be done? Ethics is a branch of morality that attempts to regulate these questions. It plays a significant role in maintaining social order by inculcating in individuals appropriate behaviour for social interaction. Also, there is the phenomenon of conscience which prevents individuals from acting in certain ways. Since Classical Greece, a vast amount of literature has accumulated on framing a universal code of ethics. However, ethics cannot be considered outside the social context and so they must change with the dynamics of society. For this very reason, there cannot be a universal code of ethics set in stone without losing its relevance at some point in time or in some parts of the world. Media or channels of mass communication have only proliferated in contemporary times. Broadcast media, film, theatre, arts, print media and the internet are major forms of mass media. The vast number of choices in propagating information and facilitating social interaction has not only provided us with more information than we can individually process but it has also led to the abuse of media for the purposes of spreading malignant rumours, communal hatred and other means of disrupting law and order in society.

Media Ethics

Ethics of journalism

It is ideal for journalists to present unbiased information to the masses. Truth, accuracy and objectivity are usually the common elements of journalism ethics across the world. The advent of journalism began with the invention of the printing press in 1450. From newsletters to pamphlets to broadsheets, print journalism underwent a gradual transformation. While the press is not a modern phenomenon, its role in society was clearly established during the Second World War which was considered to be a war for the survival of democracy. The Hutchins Commission headed by Robert Hutchins (then President of the University of Chicago) was founded for this exact purpose during the Second World War. It concluded its deliberations on the significance of the press in a modern democracy in 1947 (Wikipedia). It not only established the press as an independent Fourth Estate of democracy but also imposed on it a sense of social responsibility meaning that the press is supposed to provide accurate information to citizens so that they can govern themselves. However, it is important to note that the printing press being a product of the Renaissance in Europe, the foundations of journalism can be initially sourced to European values. Colonialism only helped to propagate this influence by training natives of European colonies in the ways of journalism envisaged in Europe. Also, globalization – which may be disputed to be another name for westernization, has accelerated the privileging of Western journalistic norms (Hanitzch et al., 2019).

Thus, while countries newly independent from colonisation might have been able to recover better if they pursued development journalism in cooperation with the government, to do so as per Western ethics meant a stifling of the freedom of the press (ibid.). Context is always important in deciding what is necessary for a particular region. Therefore, it is not only adequate to take into account the regional socio-economic inequalities but also global inequalities among countries. While globalization has made the international exchange of information and resources more accessible, journalism tends to prioritise the regional over global to cater to the needs of the regional population. Political, economic and organizational influences were found to be the strongest indicators of differences among national journalistic cultures. Such influences were found to be stronger in less developed countries (Hanitzch et al., 2019). Some issues of such influences were journalists’ safety and issues of impunity, heavy censorship and media bans (ibid.). The killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-Arabian journalist known for dissenting against the rulers of the state and Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken Indian journalist supports the abovementioned statements. Moreover, the increasing targeted killings of journalists in South America, middle-east, Asia portray a worrying pattern of suppressing press freedom across the world (theguardian.com).

Controversial cases in journalism

The American press popularized the term ‘yellow journalism’ referring to the sensationalizing of events, printing poorly researched takes on scandals and using other such marketing stunts to attract more readers. Some famous scandals in the field of journalism originated in the West; perhaps due to their long history in journalism. In 2003, television news channel CNN acknowledged that they had sugar-coated reports of Saddam Hussein’s crimes in Iraq to maintain access to the dictator (thoughtco.com). Claas Relotius, an award-winning reporter at Der Spiegel, an esteemed news magazine in Germany, was found to have invented multiple stories and passed them off as real stories.  While this is one form of bias in news reporting to attract a wider audience, another form of bias consist of propagating specific ideologies and supporting the ruling government (nber.org). Both forms of bias are common across all countries with established press organizations. Often mainstream trusted news sources can fabricate details or ignore events not deemed as ‘newsworthy’. This is where alternative media plays an important role in correcting and disputing false information as well as covering minor events pertaining to minority communities and the like.

There is another instance of journalism which focuses on particular topics with the aim to draw the attention of readers. The most popular form is the depiction of poverty in ways to exploit sympathy from readers. A Pulitzer-winning photo of a starving child beside a vulture in Sudan by Kevin Carter is a famous example of the same. However, the awareness that such depictions can create among readers comes at a price of overlooking one’s immediate humanitarian responsibilities – in Carter’s case, helping the child (commons.lib.jmu.edu).

Problems of online journalism and digital media

With the onset of online journalism, consumers are often allowed to select their preferences for news on particular topics which tends to increase bias and polarization (Wikipedia). Also, with increasing ease of access to technology, it is necessary to lay down certain guidelines for their appropriate use. Normal citizens now have the ability to capture images and videos of events with their devices and post them on social media platforms. While it definitely allows for the expansion of our awareness, especially for particular events not covered by press organizations, there is also a high probability of fake and edited images and videos being accepted as authentic. Not only is it an arduous task to separate the authentic from the fake, but it also has the potential to increase polarization among groups leading to extreme acts of violence. Such instances have become commonplace in contemporary India where false allegations of possession of beef against certain people have resulted in mob lynchings and other acts of violence. The role of alternative media becomes even more significant when it comes to investigating the truth behind online news posts. The rise of social media has increased the spread of fake news which has the potential to bring about distrust in serious media coverage (Wikipedia). There is a growing apathy for news and politics among the youth in several countries. One way of staving off disinterest in news is to examine effective ways of spreading fake news literacy so that citizens can encounter disinformation and seek out the truth (taylorfrancis.com). 

Ethical issues in entertainment media

The entertainment industry has always been the platform for conducting bold experiments in the moral sphere as well as selling ideas which obey the normative order of society. While popularizing the moral norms of society establish stereotypes firmly in social interactions, violating and criticizing the prevalent morals can be viewed as ethical violations as per the corresponding moral obligations.

Advertisements usually glorify certain concepts of human beauty and desires such as fair complexion, luxury cars, etc. Such depictions further capitalist interests of increasing consumption at the cost of accepting moral ideas which are often Euro-centric in nature. On the other hand, advertisements attempting to mingle existing social norms with newly recognized identities such as homosexuality draw flak from the ‘conservative’ section of the population.

Cinema has been subjected to censorship and rating systems in most countries in the world. Such systems impose the moral standards of their respective countries on all forms of digital art. However, with the onset of globalization and the phenomenon of the internet, we have access to cinema from all over the globe making the relevance of regional ratings debatable.

Ethical dilemmas

Despite attempts to set ethical standards on a universal as well as regional level, grey areas keep cropping up. These comprise ethical dilemmas, meaning that individuals do not have any regulations to refer to but they must rely on their own sense of judgement as well as conscience. In journalism, for instance, it is a dilemma if one has to decide between gathering news from a scandal as opposed to maintaining the privacy of individuals.

Ethical dilemmas arise due to the fact that society is dynamic in nature and constant social interaction gives rise to new ideas, norms and standards which challenge the old ones. The persistent shaping and re-shaping of what is considered ethical will inevitably maintain grey areas. Moreover, as stated before, all moral standards and ethical guidelines need to be relooked at to remove any Western bias. The social and cultural contexts must always be upheld while establishing any form of normative guidelines.

References:-

Hanitzsch, T., Hanusch, F., Ramaprasad, J., & De Beer, A. S. (Eds.). (2019). Worlds of Journalism: Journalistic cultures around the globe. Columbia University Press.

https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=evision. Accessed on 29 Jul, 2022.

https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w9295/w9295.pdf. Accessed on 29 Jul, 2022.

https://webcourses.ucf.edu/courses/1402109/pages/ethics-in-entertainment-and-media. Accessed on 29 Jul, 2022.