Someone once said that to not know is sad, but to not know you don't know is tragic.


Most classically trained ethicists (as contrasted to those media ethicists who received their training as part of a journalism or mass communication program) who preach to (or about) media people tend to fall into this category. They are inclined to public displays of great self-confidence and self-righteousness in assessing the propriety of media behavior. Indeed, they see media misdeeds with such clarity they feel morally obligated to point them out in forceful, and often narrowly principled, terms to all who will listen. In contrast, some who dive into media ethics as a specialty field do it because they see media behavior as woefully short on principle and needing course corrections, and an extensive background in journalism or media helps them to understand the special circumstance of media ethics considerations.



Yet, the non-media-trained ethicists seem to be afflicted with a collective ignorance of media's unique function in society and tend to apply the standards of their own fields, from philosophy to law, in which rigid accountability is fairly standard. Thus, their principled responses often appear as pseudo-applications that support and advance their biases, coupled with a strong sense of what is right (or wrong), rather than weighing competing virtues in a given case. "Do no harm" which has (erroneously) been linked to the Hippocratic Oath, and which dominates Bernard Gert's 10 principles of common morality (the first five of which are admonitions against harm) have traction with philosopher media critics both for their convenience and because harm is inherent in media behavior, offering an easy emotional target. They appear to identify no moral mandates for the media-save to do no harm-dismissing as trivial the defense that information is a vital element of a culture.


Lethal Combination

These two characteristics of activism and ignorance are a lethal combination both for traditional ethicists and for the media people who look to specialists in morality for some guidance in their behaviors. A part of it is that formal exploration of principled (as opposed to precedent-bound) media ethics is relatively recent, and roles-and-principles are still working their way into media ethics discussions. However, precedent-based media criticism (citing prevailing media standards) is enhanced by the delectable target presented for harm-based accusations that everyone can feel emotionally. The fallacy entangling the hatchling non-media media ethicists is they have not paused to recognize that the act of communications is to some greater or lesser degree a naturally harmful act. Distributing information benefits the receiver to the detriment of those who would withhold or control the information. Therefore, through their lack of understanding, they grasp at their favorite media shortcoming-excessive news of violence, sexual depictions, invasion of privacy, publishing names of sexual assault or suicide victims, supporting egregious establishment actions (e.g., failure to criticize the Iraq adventure), hard persuasion, fixation on the visual instead of useful news in television, trivia rather than significant content, failing to fulfill their responsibilities, emphasis on the negative and myriad other transgressions that bring immediate harm. The defending media ethicist, with a wider understanding of the roles of the media in our society argues, of course, that this harm most often serves a greater good of informing the public, which leads to better public decisions. Philosopher/ethicists see the actions of the media as both egregious and obvious, and are perplexed when media ethicists are not impressed. This, of course, leads to their conclusion that media ethicists are apologists for the media and not true ethicists at all. At the other extreme are the media moralizers-most often professionals who issue declarations about media ethics-obsessing over rules, conventions, or traditions of media behavior that, when followed, have the incidental, but practical, effect of exonerating media professionals from the harm they do; justifying the harm, but for often obscure or unexamined reasons.


In Between

Between the outside philosophers and the media moralizers is the emerging corps of media ethicists who recognize that media cause harm, but who apply principles that minimize the harm (an addition to the most recent Society of Professional Journalists code) while at the same time encouraging media to fill their primary function of creating an informed citizenry. That function is why a First Amendment and 200-plus years of court decisions have given the media a special place in American society, with a special moral mandate. Guiding these assessments of media are the triple virtues of providing information, creating accurate images, and minimizing harm. The First Amendment exemption of media folks from enforceable rules allows them, as a practical matter, to relegate harm to a secondary consideration behind the distribution of useful information. Clearly, the First Amendment creates a utilitarian climate (even a mandate) for the media making it likely that some harm to individuals will occur, but ensuring that the society at large will receive a greater good. This even would apply to the product of professional persuaders in public relations, propaganda and advertising. Philosophers tend to become emotional, inveighing against advertising for the potential of its harm to children, or in stimulating a consumer society to the detriment of savings and family management, and against all media for the harm they do to women when they disseminate indecent materials, or harm families with names and details of suicides. Or, the harm to society by publishing stories the current administration labels harmful to national security, and undermining public confidence in judicial and government systems by publishing stories of corruption and error. They assert, for example, that news media should not have exposed the sexual perversions of a juvenile court judge who committed suicide after the disclosures, or run stories of sexual harassment which destroyed the career of a sitting U. S. Senator without definitive evidence of wrongdoing. Perhaps not, but media professionals tend to have defensible reasons for producing those materials. In all these, harm is central to the condemning argument; indeed, harm is often the only principle cited. Other defenses are dismissed as irrelevant in the face of the harm. The problem is particularly acute because philosopher/ethicists cloak themselves in the mantle of virtue from which they apply principles that support their view in ways that suggest "of course the media are doing wrong here. Any idiot should be able to see that, except for those in the media, of course." Such accusations imply the media operate only as profit makers, exploiting audiences for their own gain.


Emotional Defenses

Philosophers, in their ignorance of the role of media (other than a general "free speech" protection) tend to conveniently adopt this "Do no harm" posture as they emotionally defend their favorite causes. The media are vulnerable to the emotions generated both among media folks and in the public by accusation of harm, because media cannot function without doing some harm (be it great or small) in virtually every instance of inclusion, or of exclusion, in what they do. In recent years we have seen examples such as the engineering ethicist who couldn't (or didn't want to) understand why media people cannot agree on enforceable professional standards. Other participants in one of the annual Colloquium 2000 ethics gatherings (in Eugene, Oregon), considered that the display of female nudity was prima facie evidence of harmful intent, therefore morally unacceptable (complete with supporting anecdotes), of the same order of magnitude as Internet "hate" Web pages on the Internet aimed at young people. Media ethicists find they have a difficult time explaining to other ethicists the complexities of a media ethics construct which run directly counter to the accountability ethics of most fields, and the unique position the media occupy in society which makes their ethics a particularly important matter. In addition to it being irritating to media ethicists to be looked upon as dunces by others, it does tend to do a tremendous harm to the cause of media ethics (and rational defense of the media) because other ethicists apply their own yardsticks (code-bound, or deontological in many cases) to consideration of media ethics and wonder: "Are there no standards in media?" and "Are there no depths to which these people (media ethicists) will not sink in defense of indefensible positions?" This implies, of course, that media ethicists (and media people in general) are unwilling to recognize the tremendous harm laid at their doorstep by those media actions-whether it be threatening national security or violating the privacy of innocent families or individuals. With some effort though, the problem might be corrected if media ethics folks were to go on the offensive. If they educate non-media ethicists in the unique circumstances of media ethics, they create a sense of the long-term critical role of information in the good health of a democratic, particiipatory society to ameliorate the convenient rushes to judgment about short-term harms. Young media ethics specialists better grounded in the formalism of ethics dialogue and language than those who are easing out of the field might do well to unite in this educational program. Ralph Barney is professor emeritus in communications at Brigham Young University and founding editor emeritus of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.6,26-27.