Skip to Main Content

Communication Ethics: A Vital Resource in an Ever-Changing World (October 2016): Media Ethics

By Robert L. Ballard, Melba Vélez Ortiz, and Leeanne M. Bell McManus

Media Ethics

Media ethics has a strong scholarly history, especially in journalism. Concerns include issues of privacy, the public good, individual versus corporate loyalties, and media effects. The success of this research has created a scholarly journal devoted to media ethics, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and the field has shifted to a more applied orientation, seeking to understand how best to apply ethical theory in professional media contexts. Two handbooks, The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics, edited by Lee Wilkins and Clifford Christians, and The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Ethics, edited by Robert S. Fortner and P. Mark Fackler, detail the complexity, detail, scope, and challenges of media ethics, especially as we enter a globalized, postmodern, and digitized world that pushes against the traditional norms of journalism, objectivity, and mass communication.

Of important note is Communication Ethics and Universal Values, edited by Clifford Christians and Michael Traber. Locating ethics within the dialogical, the book articulates the idea of protonorms—values inclusive of a multitude of ethical perspectives. Societies articulate protonorms in various ways and illustrate them locally, but every culture can bring to the table a fundamental normative basis for ordering political relationships and social institutions, like the media. This is because protonorms include justice, compassion, and stewardship as basic values upon which journalism should promote human dignity, social change, and responsibility. Christians outlines a communitarian ethics that situates media professionals within a community whereby the pursuit of truth promotes social responsibility, serves cultural diversity, weighs privacy with dignity and social responsibility, and embraces media technology as a natural outcome of social change.

A recent shift in media ethics is a return to virtue ethics. Sandra Borden’s Journalism as Practice: MacIntyre, Virtue Ethics, and the Press argues that journalism ought to be more rooted in virtues of the practice rather than external goods and purposes, like profit or commodification. Borden calls for a reinvigoration of values allowing journalists to carry out their roles. Patrick L. Plaisance moves away from virtue to look at individuals’ personal virtues in Virtue in Media: The Moral Psychology of Excellence in News and Public Relations. Plaisance uses social scientific research to articulate a virtue ethics model of ethical leaders in journalism. Furthermore, “Living Well in and through Media,” in Ethics of Media, edited by Nick Couldry, Mirca Madianou, and Amit Pinchevski, examines media ethics through the lens of a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethic that focuses on the standards by which we judge the satisfaction of media institutions’ own code of ethics.

While media ethics exemplifies the struggle between philosophy and practice, its greatest contributions are, actually, in philosophical and normative schools of thought. Clifford Christians, John Ferré, and P. Mark Fackler’s Good News: Social Ethics and the Press shifted thinking away from solely practical concerns toward philosophical ones. They imply that journalists owe loyalty to a set of values, but are morally responsible to the audience and the profession. Christians wrote about such thinking with “Ubuntu and Communitarianism in Media Ethics.” He draws on the African concept of ubuntu to develop a communitarian approach that reminds media practitioners that moral decisions must consider human dignity. Practically, ubuntu encourages authentic disclosure and moral literacy in re-situating journalism as an interactive act with citizens, as opposed to an elitist and separate one. Bo Shan and Christians in The Ethics of Intercultural Communication address the technological changes that have occurred in media. The authors argue that media ethics does not simply need to be updated but moved forward in a new intercultural direction. It is important to note that Christians’s work is so influential in the world of media and communication ethics that Robert S. Fortner and Mark Fackler published Ethics & Evil in the Public Sphere: Media, Universal Values & Global Development, a volume that covers a range of topics related to media, journalism, and communal life by a variety of authors influenced and inspired by Christians.