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Media Ethics on the Road to 2020

the future exitPhoto by BuckBY KENNETH HARWOOD

Opportunities for media ethicists to do work that matters seem likely to grow as we move along the short road to 2020. The rapid rise of news in social media drew little attention a few years ago, for example. Now, we see a torrent of news in social media and elsewhere online. Unfortunately, some of this "news" is fake.

Changes to meet the challenge of fake news have clearly become needed if credibility is to prevail. Earlier practice of Facebook was to select advertising content. December 2016 marked the tentative entry of Facebook into editorial oversight of news postings. Fake news was the immediate target in response to viewer demand for fact checking.

Fact checkers were to include ABC News, the Associated Press, Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes.com, as reported by The Wall Street Journal in a front page article on Dec. 16.

But years earlier than Facebook recognized public interest in credibility, Wikipedia began to post its editorial policies, including the policy to identify clearly that content which raised questions of credibility for readers—or truth.

Two broad elements of media ethics as practice seem to urge themselves upon us. One is the rise of newer media. The other is the continued globalization of media practice. Rules and rights of media ethics seem to stretch to meet the demands of those who followed social media and those who posted. We blended into social media some commercial, nonprofit, governmental, individual, and group interests. Rules and practices constructed for newspapers, radio, cinema, and television drew little attention from individuals who blogged for fun alone. 

The other rack upon which media ethics stretched in torture was the requirements of multinational expectations such as those for personal privacy, public morality, commercial appeals, credibility, and more. Some rules and practices travelled well, while others faltered at national borders or cultural barriers.

How were we to shore up media ethics for media practitioners who use conventional media and newer media, and how were we to help individuals who posted to social media and continued to write letters to the editors of older media? Perhaps we would see a greater merger of media ethics with personal morality across nations and cultures.

We might have some obligation to foster such a merger, knowing well that it can be no more than partial. Professional practices of media ethics shall, to a large degree, remain as they were, and individual morality is known to be difficult to legislate. We can hope for a certain amount of further internationalization, mindful that nations and cultures tend to change slowly. At least being a professional could entail more internationally accepted personal integrity, such as with the individuals who take to the media learn a thing or two about credibility across national boundaries, for example.

Personal morality is taught in many climes by example and social stricture, as well as direct instruction through the likes of etiquette, religion, and philosophy. Good manners suggest that it is not socially endearing to lie about the bad motives of others, religion sometimes provides a long-known rule that any lie is forbidden, and a philosophy of utilitarianism suggests that a lie becomes acceptable when it saves the life of another. Individual bloggers might be given opportunities to review and apply such morality at a parent’s knee, in primary school, and in secondary school, if not in tertiary education. Media ethics could be sought and taught long before a blogger arrives in a school for media professionals. Who will step forward among media ethicists to call for broader responsibilities on the road to 2020?

  • Kenneth Harwood is an Adjunct Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara. His extensive background in administration, teaching, and broadcast management places him in a unique position to consider what the near future may bring.

 

 
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