Controversies in Media Ethics (3rd ed., 2011)  by A. David Gordon, John Michael Kittross, John C.Merrill, William Babcock & Michael Dorsher; reviewed by Robert L. Hilliard

A. David Gordon, John Michael Kittross, John C. Merrill, William Babcock & Michael Dorsher.  (2011) Controversies in Media Ethics (3rd ed.).  (New York and London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis).  580+xxv pp.   ISBN 978-0-415-96332-9.  $ 69.95. (paper). $ 175 (hardcover). (Glossary, index, bibliography.  A companion Web site prepared by Michael Dorsher contains resources for both students and instructors, and is updated twice a year.)

Some years ago Garry Trudeau’s comic strip protagonist Mike Doonesbury was faced with an ethical dilemma. In his coveted job in an advertising agency he was assigned to develop a campaign to promote cigarette smoking directed to young people.  He wrestled with his conscience. He could ultimately be responsible for luring tens of thousands (or more) to untimely deaths.  On the other hand, implementing the ad campaign could mean a highly successful career—and income—for him. He wondered if it would be ethically all right for him to go ahead with the campaign if he donated $500 to the American Cancer Society.

I showed the cartoon panels to my college class in media writing, where we had been discussing the responsibility of writers.  Many of the students intended to work on Madison Avenue. I told  the students that someday—maybe frequently—they would find themselves in a comparable situation.  What would they do? After unexpected considerable thought, half the class said that they would make the $500 contribution.

What hath our educational system wrought?  The 3rd edition of Controversies in Media Ethics should be a required textbook in required ethics courses in every secondary and higher educational institution in the country.  

Fourteen chapters by the authors (A. David Gordon, John Michael Kittross, John C. Merrill, William Babcock and Michael Dorsher), including contributions by John A. Armstrong, Peter J. Gade, Julianne H. Newton, Kim Sheehan, and Jane B. Singer, pose and argue over assumptions on a variety of ethical issues, including  the First Amendment and media accountability,  individual values and social pressures, gatekeepers, political “correctness,” ethical codes,  new technologies, digital manipulation of content, ethics in the economic marketplace, media access, privacy, persuasion, advertising, infotainment and reality shows, and violence and sexuality.   Each topic is presented as point-and-counterpoint, one contributor taking one side, another the opposite side, avoiding what in some books might result in an “agit prop” approach to the subject.  For example, in one chapter Kittross argues that “violence and pornography, however regrettable, are merely reflections of the world,” and that outside pressures to control them would be a cure “worse than the disease.” In that same chapter Gordon argues that “there is far more violence in today’s mass media than is good for society and that violent content must somehow be controlled.”  At the end of each chapter’s dueling presentations, John Merrill sums up and evaluates each of the presenter’s arguments, much as a debate judge might provide a detailed analysis of debaters’ positive and negative points.

A final chapter, number 15, presents short commentaries, mainly by Gordon and Kittross on what might be considered sub-topics, such as journalists’ arrogance, religion and the media, co-opting the media, and media independence. John Merrill sums up the book’s purpose in a postscript.

Few textbooks provide as broad or objective a view of their subjects as does this one.  As the authors state in the Preface, “there are no ‘always correct’ answers to many of the questions of problems presented . . .” and that it is the responsibility of the reader—the student—to reach ethical conclusions. What comes through clearly, as a factor in all the topics covered, is the power of the media, its control over peoples’ minds and emotions and its determining impact on the world’s social and political existence.  

Each chapter contains references and readings related to the specific controversial media topic.  A 20-page overview of “Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics” by John C. Merrill, an excellent 19-page glossary by John A. Armstrong, a 9-page bibliography, and an Index are included in this comprehensive volume. 

Robert L. Hilliard

Note: Because the editor of Media Ethics is one of the authors of the volume reviewed above, he felt it would be unethical to unleash either his editorial eye or his red pen on the manuscript for this review.  Bob Hilliard, who is still adding to his long list of books in print, now has emeritus status but may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Fred Brown & SPJ Ethics Committee (2011, revised). Journalism Ethics: A Casebookof Professional Conduct for News Media (4th ed.) (Portland, OR: Marion Street Press). xiv +311 pp.  ISBN 978-1-933338-80-4. $49.95 (paper).  (Appendices; Online sources & Bibliography; Index).


From the time the first version was published in 1993, the several editions of this casebook have served the journalistic profession well.  The Society of Professional Journalists has never lost faith in the importance of journalistic ethics, and has continually revised, updated and distributed both its Code (which dates back to 1926, and before that to the ASNE “Canons of Journalism” adopted earlier in that decade). Producing four editions of a full-fledged book, in fewer than 20 years, is a similar achievement.


Originally written by Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney, Journalism Ethics soon moved from being a reference in the newsroom to being a text in the classroom, with a commercial publisher.  The copyright was reclaimed by SPJ in 2006, this new edition was financed by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, and it currently is distributed by Marion Street Press and SPJ itself. 


More than half the 50 cases discussed in this edition are new, having been researched and written by members of the SPJ Ethics Committee (Fred Brown, Gordon “Mac” McKerill, Elizabeth K. Hansen, Jerry Dunklee, Mike Farrell, Sara Stone, and Jane Kirtley) and others who are given credit in the book’s acknowledgments.


The organization of this 4th edition is similar to past versions:  Part One deals with the principles of journalism ethics, and contains chapters on ethical thinking, the role of the journalist, codes of ethics, and law and ethics.  Part Two contains the case studies that are the heart of this book. Each of the nine chapters in this part includes a “checklist” for use when faced by a particular kind of ethical question, followed by several (from three to eight) case studies—and a final section on “what the codes say.”  The nitty-gritty subject matter of these case studies, each part of a single chapter, includes: accuracy and fairness, deception, minimizing harm, diversity, conflicts of interest, photojournalism, privacy, source-reporter relationships, and accountability.


The two appendices are focused on the SPJ Code, with the first dealing with “Ethics as a Dynamic Dialogue” and the basic tenets of the Code: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and being accountable. The second appendix shows changes in the SPJ Code through the years.


Although the growth in new technologies, social media, and political, social, and economic interactions with mass media may make other texts more appropriate for use in a particular class, the content of Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media continues to make it an essential reference for the classroom, the office, and the newsroom—regardless of medium or level of experience.



Jane L. Chapman & Nick Nuttall (2011).  Journalism Today: A Themed History. (Malden, MA & Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell).  xiv + 338 pp.  ISBN 978-1-4051-7952-2.  $44.95 (paper).  (Chapter notes; Index; 20 Resumes; 26 FactFiles).


Most media histories are organized along chronological lines.  This interesting textbook is not—and is much more stimulating as a result.


In addition to the many very brief resumes and short FactFiles on various topics (located so that they fit into an appropriate chapter; the table of contents lists each of them), this volume is organized into four main topics with a number of chapters in each: Part I: “Journalism and Democracy: A Sibling Rivalry?” (A Right to Know, The Road Not Taken, Digging the Dirt, Spinning a Good Yarn and Developing Community); Part II: “Technology, Work and Business: Is Journalism More Than Just a Job?” (Changing Roles in a Changing World, A New Journalism For A New Age, He Who Pays The Piper, A Power Worth Fighting For); Part III: “Ethics: A Matter of Judgment?” (Private and Confidential?, Fakes, Rakes, and ‘On the Take’); and Part IV: “Audience: Citizen Consumer or Consumer Citizen?” (Finding an Audience, How Audiences Rewrote the Script, Watching and Listening). 


Unlike most history books, which look backward, this volume ends with a 16-page conclusion (Part V) subtitled “A Future History.” (This single chapter itself holds a warning title: “Paper Tigers?”). It reminds the reader to utilize the trends, principles and events discussed earlier in constructing a “where are we going?” conclusion whose four principles are scarily bulleted “Personalization,”  “Globalization,” “Localization” and “Pauperization.”


Chapman, an academic headquartered in the U.K., who also has authored a standard  history of the media (Comparative Media History: 1789 to the Present, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005), is one of the few writers today who is able to make fluid connections between the media (particularly newspapers) in the United States and Great Britain and the policies that differentially affect them. Indeed, the extensive chapter notes contain citations to many important authors and works, from many backgrounds and points of view, that are unfamiliar to many scholars in one or another English-speaking country. 


Naturally, Part III is bound to be of most interest to most readers of this magazine.  However, although some of the usual suspects are identified, the authors’ ability to use events and other examples to construct and describe principles is particularly valuable.  Rather than give details of the two chapters in this Part, let me copy the two quotations/aphorisms that start Part III: “One journalist to another: ‘If you saw a man drowning and you could either save him or photograph the event . . . what kind of film would you use?’”  and “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” (Thomas Paine).  If those two quotations don’t make the readers of Media Ethics want to read the entire Part (or the entire book), I don’t know what will!



Mary Jane Pardue (2010).  Who Owns the Press?: Investigating Public vs. Private Ownership of America’s Newspapers.  (Portland, OR: Marion Street Press). xiv+161 pp.  ISBN 978-1-933338-30-9. $24.95 (paper). (Bibliography; Index).


This short volume, based on the author’s thesis, is bound to be particularly useful to those who believe that the ownership of a newspaper (or other media outlet) frequently determines the validity of its formal and informal codes of ethics, and how closely they are followed.


The book is divided into two major parts.  Part One contains short (unfortunately, discouraging) chapters on the family newspaper economic ownership model and a quantitative comparison of independent and group-owned papers.  Part Two is the distillation of data and ideas gleaned from extensive interviews of members of the staffs of eight independent daily newspapers around the country:  the (Little Rock) Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Anniston (AL) Star, The (Spokane, WA) Spokesman-Review, The (Eugene, OR) Register-Guard, the Concord (NH) Monitor, the Daily Hampshire (MA) Gazette, the Tulsa (OK) World, and The Gazette in Cedar Rapids (IA).


Although the data in Parts One and Two will be valuable to those in search of quantitative and qualitative data who must closely tie their studies of mass media ethics to the current structure of the industries involved, the five-page “Final Word” at the end supplies the reader with more than data.  Whether or not one agrees with Prof. Pardue’s conclusions, they are succinct and well worth reading—summarizing as they do the positives and the negatives, the question of why we should care, and a 17 bullet-pointed list of “What Family Newspaper Owners Need to Do.”





Columbia Journalism Review Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Columbia Journalism Review, November-December 2011, $6.99 (cover price for this issue).  CJR, Journalism Building, 2950 Broadway, Columbia University, New York, NY 20027.

As one of the fortunate few who has read CJR ever since its “preview issue” a half century ago, I’m a fan.  I consider it “must” reading, although I confess that I turn first to the “Darts and Laurels” page, and next to “The Lower Case.”  It has led the way for the few “journalism reviews” that now exist and, arguably, has led to more fruitful discussions than any other publication in the field.


The 160+ pages of the CJR Special Anniversary Issue should be read, not merely written about. True, a substantial number of pages consist of congratulatory ads, but the real content, from the contents page (e.g., “Despite being, at times, on death’s doorstep, CJR has stubbornly survived seven deans [of the Columbia University School of Journalism], disappearing donors, economic turmoil, and a proliferation of competitors…”) to the best-of-the-best examples of typos, misspellings, and other “ow-ies” in “The Lower Case” at the end of the issue (e.g., “Dr. Ruth Talks About Sex With Newspaper Editors” and “Florida reporter completes sentence”) it should be shelved with the “books to read for fun and long-term value ” rather than consider this to be another example of the ephemera of the typical magazine issue.


True, there is only one page-filling “Dart,” but it consists of a thoughtful review of the past 50 years of both Darts and Laurels.  And then comes the good stuff that will contribute to editorials, special issues of other publications, term papers, dissertations and memoirs for many years to come: A special “Hard Numbers” section showing the decade-by-decade evolution of many markers, a page discussing changes in our professional jargon, and a 10-page “TimeLine” of journalistic development over the past half-century.  And finally, the real meat: 14 pages of Magnum photographs that made a difference, an enormous and thought-provoking article by Michael Shapiro about the San Jose Mercury News (“The Newspaper that Almost Seized the Future”),  and some 32 pages of “The Reporter’s Voice,” in which a number of top “reporters talk about what they do, how they do it, and why.”


Neither CJR nor this reviewer advocate that the reader only should look to the past and the present, although the three-full-pages masthead identifying (in red ink) both those who are currently holding a post as well as those who no longer serve in it, goes a long way toward making it easy to understand that CJR has evolved rather than revolved and has followed the compass of its first issue.  The future, though, isn’t being ignored:  Toward the back of this 50th Anniversary Issue are several forward-gazing essays, on topics ranging from funding to bibliography, that are like the whipped cream on a birthday cake.  Eat heartily!