Have you ever wanted to watch ordinary people fight, have sex, or just verbally abuse each other on TV? Reality television has made these events a staple for American viewers. What makes this type of television different is its use of "regular people," or non-celebrities, who are not equipped with acting experience or a regular paycheck for their performances (Reiss 373). It is a genre of television that lies somewhere between information dissemination and entertaining dramatization and documenting (Hill 2).

In order to effectively evaluate the ethical dimensions of this form of media, a historical framework must be put in place. Aristotle is one of the most ancient, and yet still prominent, ethicists. His theory of ethics, virtue ethics, did not include much gray area, but instead is founded upon the virtue of people and their acts, not a particular set of rules. In Aristotelian terms, in order to come to an ethical decision, a person must first be well-versed in the details of the action being done; second, the act must encourage self-flourishment, not degradation of character; finally, the act must not change the foundation of who a person is in order to be valid. This framework was further simplified to the golden mean:"Virtue lies at the mean between two extremes of excess and deficiency" (Patterson 8).

A later view of virtue ethics comes from John Stuart Mill, who espoused utilitarianism. In this context, any ethical decision must be made by using the utility, or usefulness, of that decision based on the consequences of the actions made. In utilitarianism, the emphasis is on the end-game. Within this framework of utility evaluation, the greater good of all is para mount (Patterson 10).

Finally, there is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. When making a decision to act, one must consider others. If the act could be considered good for all, then it could be considered a universal law, or categorical imperative, as well as the framework for justifying an action made (Patterson 9-10). When evaluating reality television through these lenses, there are several areas to consider: the ethics of the producers, the participants, and the viewers.

The Producers: Behind the Camera

Many appraisals of producers' handling of the events and people of reality television and the ethical decisions they make have been highly critical. According to Nicolaus Mills, producers have no ethical core. "They never ask themselves if they are taking advantage of people's needs and vulnerabilities or if they have any obligations to those who agree to be on their programs" (81). To the producers, the participants are simply a means to an end, an ethical stance with which Kant- whose strongly maintains that people must be treated as ends in themselves and never as the means to an end-would not agree. Because of a producer's view of the end product-monetary gain- contestants are treated as "mere things" in order to increase profits (Mascaro). What if the producers pay the contestants to forego their ethical beliefs and comply with their directives? On the show Cheaters, producers offer up to $2,000 to people on the show who have been caught cheating on their significant other so Cheaters can use their face in the footage shown on TV (Harry 231). Giving permission would certainly degrade their character as viewed by the public, which would fail Aristotle's ethical test.

The Participants: In Front of the Camera

It is not clear whether the participants fully understand what they are consenting to do, even if they are briefed before and sign a consent form. McVey calls this into question by querying, "Is their consent based on a realistic knowledge and understanding of the possible consequences for them and their families?" ("Reality Bites"). Even on-screen, the viewer can hardly delineate between participant and victim. On the show Cheaters, a participant is converted from paid contestant for the next new episode of cheating wives and husbands to a "suffering victim" caught in the web of lies and deceit of their significant other who engages in adulterous liaisons (Harry 237). Besides the deceit visited upon the participants, the issue of the privacy of the "victims" being uncovered before the eyes of the viewers, comes into question. "The fact that many Cheaters' victims' allow legal undercover videotaping within their own residences truly tangles up otherwise cherished social-ethical notions about the right to privacy and the use, or misuse, of surveillance" (Harry 241). If a person is not fully aware of all the details of what will go on in the show or does things that degrade their character, the Aristotelian standard of being well-versed in the details of the act fails to be met.

The Viewers: Consumers of the Camerawork

What is reality television without the viewership who watches it Since this is a rapidly growing genre, many people from all walks of life have tuned in to watch one type of reality show or another. Reiss recognizes that viewers who are concerned with their own status are more likely to enjoy watching reality TV. According to his study, their need to feel important is met by watching ordinary people they perceive on the shows as inferior to them. Conversely, ordinary people watch the shows in order to identify with those on the show they feel represent themselves, which allows them to romanticize about the possibility of achieving celebrity status (373-374).

In one study, Skeggs looked at the intersections of three different classes of women and the way they viewed the shows. With each class came diverse perspectives. In the middle class sample, the women focused on evaluating the characters on the show, condemning them for the monetary reward they received without having to work for it-and the producers' exploitation of these contestants.

But a working class group of women identified with, instead of evaluated, the participants by believing that the shows offer an atypical option for opportunity that "ordinary" people would not likely receive. The ethics of the people on-screen were praised.

The third sample was an ethnic class consisting of Asian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi women. Because of their cultural backgrounds, participation in a reality television show was not an option. To them, people on this type of show would bring shame on oneself and one's family by breaking the family's code of honor.

No matter what viewers' point of view may be, the ethical question is: Why do viewers absorb themselves, en masse, with the actually unrealistic lives and tales of these realty shows? Harry speculates it is because America is a nation obsessed with spying on others. He likens these broadcast spectacles to the jeering and taunting that spectators threw at a shamed townsperson in the public stocks of a village square long ago (242), hardly an ethical reason to tune in by any of the early ethicists' estimation.


U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia encapsulates the intersection of ethics and reality television shows best when Cooke-Jackson quotes him:

"Television could be such a positive tool in our society and culture. It could be doing so much good. It could be a powerful instrument to bring out the best in us, rather than appeal to our meanest and darker sides. It could be a creative instrument in elevating the standards and values of the American people rather than lowering them" (195).

Works Cited

Cooke-Jackson, Angela, & Elizabeth Hansen. (2008). "Appalachian Culture and Reality TV: The Ethical Dilemma of Stereotyping Others." Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 23(3), 183-200. Retrieved from E-Journals database.

Harry, Joseph C. (2008). "Cheaters: 'Real' Reality Television as Melodramatic Parody." Journal of Communication Inquiry, 32(3), 230-248. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Hill, Annette. (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. New York: Routledge.

Mascaro, Thomas A. (2004). "The Network Executive Did It." Journal of Popular Film & Television, 31(4), 149-157. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

McVey, Cynthia. (2004). "Reality Bites." New Scientist, 183(2458), 16. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Mills, Nicolaus. (2004). "Television and the Politics of Humiliation." Dissent (00123846), 51(3), 79-81. Retrieved from Education Research Complete database.

Patterson, Philip, & Lee Wilkins. (2008). Media Ethics: Issues and Cases. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Reiss, Steven, & James Wiltz. (2004). "Why People Watch Reality TV." Media Psychology, 6(4), 363-378. Retrieved from E-Journals database.

Skeggs, Bev. (2008). "'Oh goodness, I am watching reality TV': How methods make class in audience research." European Journal of Cultural Studies, 11(1), 5-24. Retrieved from E-Journals database.


Kristine Davis is a graduate student in the School of Journalism at Baylor University. Her e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..