Monday, November 2, 2009

An Ethical Dilemma

Ethics in journalism, like morality in our personal lives, are created through a complex formula of equal parts philosophy, religion, social conditioning and experience.

Considering the vast possibilities for differences in each of these parts, it’s easy to see why any attempt to impose a single ethical standard to all journalists would be tricky at best.

Although there are no hard and fast rules, one general standard emerges.

“After looking at ethical codes around the world, the most common ethical imperative seems to be truth-telling.” (Merrill, p. 95)

In an ideal world, the public should be able to expect the media to be honest, fair, balanced and truthful in their efforts-but we know that such an assumption is unrealistic. (Merrill, p. 94)

“Some of the ethical challenges the media face today largely deal with such things as fabrication, plagiarism, invasions of privacy, and the concealment of the names of sources.” (Merrill, p. 103)

But, as Merrill points out, other issues include quoting out of context, imprecise paraphrasing, incorrect quotations, misidentifications, biased news and propaganda, conflicts of interest, sensationalism and negativism, etc. (p. 104)

Merrill’s Utopian view of ethics in mass media is that “journalists of their own accord will forge a dedicated and committed league of ethicists and freedom-fighters embracing a combination of freedom and responsibility, wisdom and virtue.” (p. 107)

But, responsibility includes more than getting the facts straight and presenting stories in a balanced way.

In its fundamental obligation to inform the public about the events of the day, journalism creates a map for citizens to navigate society. (Kovach & Rosenstiel, p. 208)

The map should include news of all our communities, not just those with attractive demographics or strong appeal to advertisers. (p. 209)

Starting in the early 1900s, newspapers became more middle class and literary. The shift left holes in coverage for entire communities and newspapers did not make much investment in the youngest Americans.

“Those who were unable to navigate where they lived gave it up. The newscasts and newspapers that ignored whole communities also created problems for those it did serve. It left its audiences poorly informed because so much was left out. This made citizens vulnerable to making poor decisions about contemporary trends and about their needs.” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, p. 211)

As news becomes more niche and consumers continue the trend of searching out the news they want to read, or the news they identify with most, ensuring news includes coverage of all demographics will become more challenging.


  1. I enjoyed reading this blog. Laura has done a very good job of working the K & R ideas into an ethical discussion. Those K & R chapters aren't on ethics per se, so well done synthesizing them.

    I have to chuckle about your reference to Merrill's "utopian" idea of a group of journalists coming together to forge a dedicated group of ethicists and freedom-fighters. Here's why:

    In about 2002-03, a group of serious-minded journalists who were worried about the direction of the craft and profession formed a Committee of Concerned Journalists and began networking and publishing their concerns (mostly online). This group eventually morphed (with some foundation funding) into an initiative called the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The first chair of this committee and project was Tom Rosenstiel, one of the authors of your text. The first book published by this committee is your text, The Elements of Journalism.

    Maybe journalists pulling together for the betterment of the craft and profession isn't so utopian after all.

  2. Very interesting. I agree in that Journalism can't be placed under one form of ethics. In the lecture today, we talked about deontological ethics as being driven by duty. This form of ethics seemed to fit with journalistic principles except for "minimize harm" stated in the S.P.J. code of ethics. This combines both deontological and teleological ethics which is based on consideration of consequences and what is better for the group.

    Considering this, laura said it best with "
    Considering the vast possibilities for differences in each of these parts, it’s easy to see why any attempt to impose a single ethical standard to all journalists would be tricky at best."