Perhaps John Merrill was right in 2002 when he opined in these pages that, when it comes to media programming, pragmatics rule the day.1 In an era of shock jocks, racy reality shows and desperate network executives using Desperate Housewives to boost sagging Monday Night Football ratings, the pursuit of luring a willing audience and an even more willing advertiser seems to lend itself to eschewing ethical considerations.
But before we consider doing away with larded syllabi and classroom discussion on ethics, we should consider how lurid "envelope pushing" programming may be adversely influencing nascent communicators and their educators.
We need to find means of dealing with such disparate priorities as those of students, whose creative juices are flowing, the institutions that provide facilities for television production (and these institutions' legislative, alumni, staff, and donor constituencies), and those who are exposed to the content. But higher education has a particularly strong philosophical need to allow-or even promote-the free communication of ideas, even as the academy remains part of the larger society.
Clifford Christians proposes that cultures look to outside norms to define limitations and engage in self-critique.2 For one budding college media producer, imitation of mainstream programming that pushes the ethical envelope may have been more than a form of flattery. During the month of February, 2005, the student-run television station (SRTV) at the University of California campus in San Diego broadcast a program that featured a ten-minute segment showing a UCSD senior engaging in sexual acts with an unidentified woman. The segment aired three times as part of a 90-minute show called Koala TV via a closed-circuit loop only seen on campus between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.3 An investigation by the University ensued to determine whether the program ran afoul of school policies, federal or state laws, or guidelines from the Federal Communications Commission.
Meanwhile, the featured senior performer and producer of the show, Steve York, who fancied himself as "an entertainer" during an interview on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor,4 told the school newspaper his production had the residual effect of fighting for free speech rights of students.5 Indeed the university has itself cited First Amendment principles in avoiding the censoring of Koala TV's progenitor, The Koala, a satirical and often controversial publication distributed on campus. In the end, given the closed-circuit nature of the transmission no FCC rules were broken, but the program was found to be violative of SRTV's charter.6 Campus student leaders formally condemned the broadcast (without taking disciplinary action) and planned to review and clarify the station's policies on dealing with future incidents of obscenity over the SRTV system.7
But before York or some other self-anointed defender of free speech once again tests the fringes of protection, the question as to whether media programmers are taught or caught lessons in ethics8 may very well rest on audience awareness of those lessons or, at the very least, protecting the viewers' right to oppose a program's content by doing more than simply changing the channel. A majority of the 300-plus emails and phone calls received opposed the sexual content of Koala TV, ostensibly influencing the decision of those recommending clarification of SRTV programming policies.9
As an instructor, I'm more likely to hear a student say she wants to be the next (insert name of famous infamous media personality of your choice here) than a declaration or admission of responsibility to self or audience. In many respects, the student attitude is a reflection of the media's propensity to eschew novelty.10 It also mirrors the more celebrated monologues of civil libertarians who fear the slippery slope of moral limits.
Teleologists have it somewhat easy; the impact of ratings, sales or potential fines are tangible guidelines on which to formulate decisions as to whether to publish or broadcast offensive content.11 But a duty-minded media content manager seems to have little traction ever since the death of the Fairness Doctrine and the birth of the Internet.
The same could be said for duty-minded educators-to profess moral responsibility is to do so at the risk of being labeled out-of-touch with the reality of a highly-competitive media field.
But in the case at hand, the reality is that there is only one SRTV channel on the UCSD campus and seeking shelter under a safe harbor (e.g., airing it at a late hour when only adults are presumed to be in the audience) argument12 is not enough to strike a balance between the varied rights and goals of the programmer, the agent (i.e., UCSD) facilitating the avenue of expression, and those of the audience. The issue is complex and at first blush the university's decision to review the station's charter would seem to be paternalistic in nature. However the exercise of finding a middle ground in this instance is a valuable opportunity for all affected parties to become more fully aware of their rights and responsibilities and how to ply them. Shifting focus, as the University did here, from the aired content to the airing-out of differences between empowered parties taking part in a substantive dialogue, presented a ripe opportunity to demonstrate how ethics is more of an organic pursuit than a top-down mandate for the media practitioner.
Who knows, in the end maybe ethics can be learned after all.
1 John C. Merrill, "Pragmatics, Not Ethics, Directs the Journalist," Media Ethics, Spring 2002 (13:2), p.4.
2 Clifford G. Christians, "Ruminations about the Communitarian Debate," in Jay Black (ed.), Mixed News: The PublicCivicCommunitarian Journalism Debate. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997, Ch. 2.
3 Eleanor Yang, "Sex Acts on Student TV Investigated by UCSD," The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 19, 2005.
4 Bill O'Reilly interview of Steve York, producer, and Chelsea Welch, SRTV manager on The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News, February 22, 2005.
6 Blanca Gonzalez, "Televising Sex Acts Violated Station's Charter, UC Finds," The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 26, 2005.
7 Elizabeth Fitzsimmons and Eleanor Yang, "Students Rebuke Telecast of Sex Acts; Koala Episode Aired on USCD Station," The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 3, 2005.
8 Jay Black, "Media Ethics Should be Taught with a Tight Grip on Reality," Media Ethics, Spring 2002 (13:2), p.5.
10 Claude-Jean Bertrand, Media Ethics and Accountability Systems, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000, p.75.
11 Louis A. Day, Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies (2nd Ed.), Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1997, p. 284.
12 Eleanor Yang, "Sex Acts on Student TV Investigated by UCSD," The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 19, 2005.
John Soares teaches law and broadcast journalism classes at California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo. He also regularly produces television programs.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1), pp. 12,23-24.