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date: 07 May 2021

Journalism Ethicsfree

  • Patrick Lee PlaisancePatrick Lee PlaisanceDepartment of Journalism & Media Communication, Colorado State University


News workers—writers, editors, videographers, bloggers, photographers, designers—regularly confront questions of potential harms and conflicting values in the course of their work, and the field of journalism ethics concerns itself with standards of behavior and the quality of justifications used to defend controversial journalistic decisions. While journalism ethics, as with the philosophy of ethics in general, is less concerned with pronouncements of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of certain acts, it relies on longstanding notions of the public-service mission of journalism. However, informing the public and serving a “watchdog” function regularly require journalists to negotiate questions of privacy, autonomy, community engagement, and the potentially damaging consequences of providing information that individuals and governments would rather withhold.

As news organizations continue to search for successful business models to support journalistic work, ethics questions over conflicts of interest and content transparency (e.g., native advertising) have gained prominence. Media technology platforms that have served to democratize and decentralize the dissemination of news have underscored the debate about who, or what type of content, should be subjected to journalism ethics standards. Media ethics scholars, most of whom are from Western democracies, also are struggling to articulate the features of a “global” journalism ethics framework that emphasizes broad internationalist ideals yet accommodates cultural pluralism. This is particularly challenging given that the very idea of “press freedom” remains an alien one in many countries of the world, and the notion is explicitly included in the constitutions of only a few of the world’s democratic societies. The global trend toward recognizing and promoting press freedom is clear, but it is occurring at different rates in different countries. Other work in the field explores the factors on the individual, organizational, and societal levels that help or hinder journalists seeking to ensure that their work is defined by widely accepted virtues and ethical principles.


Potential harm posed by news accounts, the use of deceptive tactics to secure stories, and the increasing prevalence of infotainment content are all examples of journalism ethics issues. In addition to specific practices, the field of journalism ethics also addresses broader theoretical issues such as what roles the news media should play in society, whether the idea of patriotism poses a conflict of interest for journalists, and what might constitute a set of universal or global values to define good journalism across cultures. As a field, journalism ethics spans a wide range of issues from examination of specific case studies that raise questions of privacy and editorial independence, to abstract, normative arguments about how concepts from moral philosophy such as realism, relativism, and the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia, or flourishing, should inform the work of journalism.

As the idea of journalism has evolved over the centuries, economic imperatives and the desire to be seen as performing “professionalized” work have motivated news publishers and journalists to embrace various standards of behavior. Depending on its cultural context, the idea of journalism emerged from commercial or political “hack” work, where newspapers were entertainment or party organs, to its role in most developed countries as an autonomous broker of information and “watchdog” of power centers on behalf of citizens. As a result, publishers, editors, and writers recognized the value of embracing standards of conduct to build integrity and commercial viability. Journalism ethics scholars and researchers have explored the philosophical underpinnings of these standards, the recurrent failures of news workers to meet them, and the moral obligations of journalism on a societal level.

Ethics and the Journalistic Mission

While ethics is conventionally understood as the work involved to discern “right” actions from wrong, it is more precisely a field of inquiry focused on examining the quality of our deliberations when dealing with moral dilemmas. It is about asking the “right” questions to best illuminate our duties and potential impacts on others. As such, ethics rarely provides clear answers about the best way to handle quandaries. Rather, ethics serves to help us highlight morally relevant issues and come up with optimal defensible decisions. This also describes the field of journalism ethics: while there are some clear rules and standards about how journalists should operate, more common are abstract statements of value that are intended to inform good behavior. Journalism ethics is a distinct subfield of media ethics in that it addresses behavior and dilemmas unique to the practices of gathering and presenting news content. It works within the context of journalism culture that assumes a critical public-service function of the work in a professional or semi-professional setting distinct from marketing or promotional media content. While journalism ethics scholarship draws from moral philosophy in its use of concepts such as autonomy, harm, and justice, it also represents an applied ethics approach, focusing as it often does on case studies and analyses of situations that pose dilemmas involving protection of journalistic credibility or potential harm to story subjects. Ethicists in media often call for a deontological approach in journalism practice—for journalists to be more mindful of these broad duties and less concerned about the consequences of providing the news to the public. True public service, they argue, requires journalists to report the news, as explosive, discomforting, or controversial as it may be, and let the chips fall where they may. The public must decide how that information will be utilized. These ethicists insist that journalists should resist paternalistic impulses and pressure to “sanitize” the news. Despite this general tendency, many journalism ethics codes and standards also include explicitly utilitarian concerns—a recognition that journalists must, of course, be mindful of the consequences of their work, particularly when it comes to potential harmful effects of some information. The tensions created by these two approaches often constitute the heart of many journalism ethics controversies, just as they do in other areas of applied ethics. A look at codes of ethics embraced by various journalistic organizations around the world illustrates how both approaches are invoked. These codes most often avoid clear declarations of prohibitions or required actions, and instead provide aspirational calls for journalists to report the news courageously, to be accountable to the public, and to minimize harm as much as possible. All of these imply a special covenant with the public and an obligation to act in ways that serve more than the commercial interests of individual journalists or news organizations. This includes, as one of the first publishers of the New York Times famously said, to report the news “without fear or favor”—in other words, without being cowed or intimidated by powerful people or institutions who might want to shape the news for their own interests, and also without any agenda to promote any single individual, cause, or policy in the course of reporting. In commercial media systems, the specter of corporate conflict of interest is a recurring journalism ethics issue: corporate media conglomerates use their journalism divisions to promote, in the guise of news content, products or services (such as a film or musical artist) produced by another division. Similarly, nationalized or party-owned news outlets subject to government or political control are typically perceived as lacking sufficient editorial autonomy to report news that may adversely impact those in power. Accountability in journalism most often refers to fulfilling a public-service role in the dissemination of news. It calls for journalists to respond quickly to questions about accuracy, and to acknowledge and correct mistakes. It also implies the notion that journalists wield considerable power in their ability to spotlight and scrutinize the behavior of others, and that they must use that power judiciously. Journalists, consequently, are expected to acknowledge their own ethical lapses, and to apply the same standards of behavior to themselves that they hold for news subjects. Most journalistic ethics codes also call for minimizing harm in the course of news work. Note that the call to minimize harm is distinct from imperatives to “prevent” or “avoid” harm, which are virtually non-existent in journalism. This semantic distinction is deliberate and reflects an acknowledgement that harmful effects are occasionally inevitable in the course of good journalism. Journalistic harm is most conventionally understood as materially “setting back” an important and legitimate “interest” of someone or some group that is the focus of news. Some such harms might be easily defended, such as the economic harm caused by an investigative report on the questionable or illegal practices of a company. Other such harms are more difficult to justify, such as the damage created to someone’s reputation by the disclosure of personal facts not considered very newsworthy. But harm can take many other forms. Ill-considered behavior might result in harm to the individual journalist’s reputation or that of his or her news organization. As with most other lines of work, the ethically questionable behavior of individual actors can easily reflect on—and harm—the profession or field as a whole, reducing trust. The public also can be harmed with misinformation and sensationalistic coverage or content that leaves people with an inaccurate understanding of a topic or issue. In most cases, journalists minimize potential harms by articulating the public value of published information and by considering withholding information that might be less important or relevant for a story. Journalists also consider story “play”—how images and graphics are used as well as story placement and prominence. More recently, journalism ethics discussions and scholarship have emphasized additional values. One is transparency, or being aboveboard in explaining news decisions. For example, recent efforts to revise the code of ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists in the United States resulted in adding the imperative that journalists “be transparent.” In some cases, this has meant inviting the public to observe, either personally or via streaming video, editorial meetings of news organizations. In others, it has meant allowing digital access to databases and other files that are used in building news stories. Another value that has gained in prominence in journalism ethics is community engagement. More journalistic organizations, particularly digital-only news sites, have expressed an obligation to move beyond mere reporting of the news and to make efforts to foster civic participation. At its most basic, this manifests itself through active story comment lines and forums to discuss stories and issues. But it also can include the sponsorship by news organizations of public meetings to address specific issues of concern as well as inviting audience members to “sponsor” an investigative effort, which a news organization, once receiving sufficient financial support, “pledges” to publish.

Journalism and Ethics Frameworks

Much work in journalism ethics is rooted in two predominant strains found in the philosophy of ethics. One is consequentialism, in which much of the moral weight of decisions is placed on the goodness of the outcome. In journalism, this is most clearly illustrated by the focus on possible harms resulting from newsgathering and publishing. The other predominant strain is deontology, or duty-based ethics. Many news outlets and journalism associations have embraced ethics codes that itemize the various duties that responsible journalists must carry out: duty to serve the public, duty to scrutinize centers of power, duty to be as transparent and accountable as possible. But the “third way” in ethics, virtue theory, has recently been gathering prominence in journalism practice as well. Rooted in the work of Aristotle, this approach focuses instead on identifying “virtues”—what it means to be courageous, charitable, honest, and so forth—and articulating how such virtues ought to be manifested in our lives if we are serious about the promotion of human “flourishing.” Insisting that journalists should “be virtuous” may sound like a less-than-useful platitude, but recognizing and living by virtues is far from simple. We would not still be discussing them thousands of years after Aristotle if it were. And as we have seen, ethics is rarely black and white. We must juggle competing claims, weigh various possible harms, articulate often multiple duties—all in the course of just one ethical question. In moral psychology (discussed later in this article), the idea of “moral commitment” is an important one—the degree to which individuals internalize moral principles, or virtues, into their very self-identities, so that those principles almost reflexively inform daily behavior. Moral “exemplars” are those among us who not only internalize these principles, but whose moral development has given them what might be called a highly developed skill of discrimination: the ability to make fine-grained distinctions among similar situations and to thoughtfully respond with just the right mix of appraisals, beliefs, and behavior that still reflect one’s broader moral commitments. This is the more character-driven approach that preoccupies virtue ethicists. One of them, Rosalind Hursthouse (1999, p. 154), argued that the virtues “are not excellences of character, not traits that, by their very nature, make their possessors good and result in good conduct.” Rather, she said we must remember the “Aristotelian idea that each of the virtues involves practical wisdom, the ability to reason correctly about practical matters.” It is more of a “ground-up” approach, rather than the “top-down” approach of duty ethics or the “ends-focused” approach of consequentialism. And for a growing chorus of journalism ethics scholars, it may be the most useful one. “By building from our appreciation of ‘particular facts’ about how the media operate in the contemporary world, we have a more useful starting point for the tangled problems of media ethics than by relying on supposedly consensual norms, rights or obligations,” wrote media ethicist Nick Couldry (2013, p. 42).

A notable example of virtue ethics applied to journalism is offered by media ethicist Sandra Borden. Borden draws on the work of philosopher Alistair MacIntyre, who argues that the ancient Greeks understood the notion of virtues as qualities that were critical to have if one were to perform well in his or her social roles. Aristotle described virtues not as ends in themselves, but as tools to achieve what he said should be our broader aim: “the good life,” or eudaimonia. As individuals, we not only contribute to our own well-being but help bring about such flourishing for all through specialized work that is often referred to as professional behavior. In his landmark book, After Virtue, MacIntyre (2007, p. 187) called this type of work a practice:

By ‘practice’ I . . . mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the end and good involved, are systematically extended.

Such practices, he argued, involve “standards of excellence and obedience to rules” that are aimed at attaining internal goods, or things that contribute to the common good regardless of who actually receives them. Media professionals, when deliberately informing their work with the “standards of excellence” that are attached to their “practices,” are able to deliver public goods such as providing information and analysis that enables the public to participate in a vigorous democratic life. As Borden (2007, p. 16) summarized, “an occupation’s purpose provides it with moral justification, from a virtue perspective, if it can be integrated into a broader conception of what is good for humans.” In her book, Journalism as Practice, she made the compelling case that journalism should indeed be treated as a MacIntyrean practice. Another media ethicist, Victor Pickard (2011, p. 76), eloquently described the “practice” of journalism having internal goods as its aim:

[Journalism] is an essential public service with social benefits that transcend its revenue stream. In its ideal form, journalism creates tremendous positive externalities. It serves as a watchdog over the powerful, covers crucial social issues, and provides a forum for diverse voices and viewpoints. As such, journalism functions as democracy’s critical infrastructure.

Implications of Specific Practices

Due to the ongoing nature and recurring tensions inherent in news work, several specific types of questions and controversies regularly surface. Yet it should be clear that ethics provides no clear-cut solution to cases of the same type; indeed, ethicists often argue for very different resolutions or optimal decisions among similar cases, depending on context and factors that may have more or less importance in different situations. It nonetheless is valuable to note several broad types of journalism ethics questions:

Conflict of interest. As noted previously, corporate and political conflicts of interest commonly raise questions of journalistic autonomy and adherence to ideals of public service. Conflict of interest can also occur at the individual level, where the interests or values of a single journalist might tempt him or her to compromise his or her news judgements. Most journalistic policies require news workers to treat potential appearances of conflict of interest as just as much a threat to credibility as actual conflicts, and, in cases of the latter, to take explicit steps to acknowledge the conflict and to either minimize or eliminate it. In most cases, journalists are expected to recuse themselves from activities that might pose a journalistic conflict. This includes policies that prohibit reporters covering politics from featuring political bumper stickers on their private vehicles.

Minimizing harm. Also as noted, the concept of harm can take many forms, and journalists are regularly called upon to justify their decisions that arguably cause harm to individuals or groups. Photojournalists in war zones and those covering sites of humanitarian tragedy have been challenged, for example, for their decisions to maintain their role as dispassionate witnesses to scenes of human suffering, rather than setting down their cameras and helping those in need. News organizations also have drawn criticism when disclosing secret or classified information that, in the course of informing the public, may arguably harm or undermine national interests.

Balancing privacy interests. Generally, theorists agree that everyone requires a degree of privacy to allow for self-development and to enable individuals to manage their multiple social roles. But with the value of privacy regularly being contested, journalists confront the dilemma of the extent to which respect for individual privacy should determine news coverage. While some scholars have argued that protecting privacy should never be considered the job of the journalist because of myriad and shifting definitions, others emphasize that journalism that respects privacy can encourage civic participation and engagement. Ethics arguments frequently flare over when disclosure of personal information is merited as well as when story subjects arguably seek to dodge accountability by invoking questionable or ill-informed privacy claims.

News frame effects. News content that may have negative effects on society frequently raises ethics questions. For example, psychologists have long warned of the “contagion” effect of coverage of suicide that focuses on the method of death and emotional state of the subject, which may prompt others in a similar emotional state to “copy” the story. Journalists have embraced media guidelines for responsible coverage of suicide as a social-health issue rather than as spectacle. The way an issue in the news is “framed” by story narratives, using factors such as sourcing, point of view, emphasis, and description, can leave audiences with a particular understanding of that issue. Framing of hot-button topics such as gun violence, gender roles, or obesity can serve to emphasize or favor one perspective over another and thus raise ethical questions.

Stereotypes. Relying on or perpetuating gender, racial, or ethnic stereotypes in news stories also can be considered a framing issue, and journalists must be mindful of inadvertent stereotyping. Expediency, narrative brevity, and the press of deadlines often discourage thoughtful considerations of the descriptions used for story subjects, be they local celebrities or police suspects. Research has suggested a consistent gender bias in news descriptions of physicality, emphasizing clothing items for women but not men, for example. Also, consistent focus on race often leaves skewed perceptions of crime patterns in the mind of the public.

Newsgathering techniques. What methods are justifiable in the collection of information valuable to the public? Classic what-ends-justify-the-means questions regularly confront journalists. While absolutist policies are rare, many news organizations refuse to pay for news or interviews, though tabloid outlets commonly do so. The concern is that sources with a financial incentive may be tempted to embellish, alter, or even fabricate facts and events, thereby undermining the journalistic enterprise. In some developing countries, such as Kenya, China, and India, money is regularly passed to individual journalists to curry favor and secure positive treatment. With celebrity periodicals, where exposure has created its own competitive market among a finite pool of public figures, payment for attention has become more removed from objective newsworthiness standards. The use of deceptive tactics, such as hidden cameras, also raises ethical questions. Several journalistic organizations have adopted policies stating that hidden cameras should be used only as a last resort and only when the information sought has high potential value for the public. Similar policies apply to journalists misrepresenting themselves to access information.

Graphic images. The publication of photos that depict gore, violence, and suffering regularly raises ethical questions for news journalists. Such questions become particularly heated during times of war or conflict, and when patriotic sentiments may bring added pressure to bear on journalists to depict the “right” story and avoid using images that audiences might perceive to be demoralizing. Claims that graphic images can be offensive, harmful, or unnecessary clash with concerns that avoiding such images risks sanitizing or propagandizing the news, which can easily undermine journalistic credibility. As with other journalistic ethics issues, the controversies over the publication of graphic images reflect diametric approaches within ethics itself: A utilitarian concern focused on minimizing harmful consequences of a decision versus a deontological ethos that calls for depicting the news with courage and relying on audiences to make their own decisions about the value of such images.

Ethics and Journalism Sociology

A variety of factors influences and even determines the behavior of journalists. The professional, cultural, and organizational environments in which journalists work have been referred to as their “moral ecology,” a recognition that news workers, like everyone else, do not operate in a self-defined vacuum, and that individual beliefs and predispositions are routinely subsumed by broader processes of socialization that can both help and hinder the exercise of ethical reasoning skills and moral autonomy. Thus, normative claims about what journalists should or should not do in the course of their work must rest not on assumptions that journalists are guided solely by personal beliefs but on an appreciation of these socialization processes. For example, journalists are criticized for advancing a “news agenda” reflecting their personal biases, but such claims often ignore how the broader constraints of the news decision-making process (e.g., the requirements of video production on deadline), organizational structure (e.g., the allocation of resources intended to produce one type of news content over another), or professional culture (e.g., the internal system of sanctions and rewards from editors based on impartiality of work) function as much greater influences. That moral ecology, of course, varies widely around the globe. Journalism sociology research over the years has identified broad “levels” or categories of factors that influence the production of news, generally distinguishing among individual-, organizational-, and societal-level spheres. For example, the ongoing “Worlds of Journalism” project examining news work across cultures has identified six levels of influence:

The individual level includes personal opinions, values, and demographic data as well as information on specific roles and occupational characteristics within a news organization.

The media routines level includes deadlines, production procedures, and standards and other constraints posed by newsgathering practices.

The organizational level includes technological imperatives, advertising or revenue considerations, and editorial decision-making.

The media structures level includes the economic model of news that entails profitability and resource allocation as realities in the relatively high costs of news production.

The systemic level includes national-level data such as regulatory policies, ideological assumptions, and degree of press freedoms.

Reference groups constitute a dimension that spans professional and personal domains to include competing news organizations, audiences, colleagues, friends, and family members.

In much research on journalism culture since the late 20th century, organizational- and societal-level factors have been found to be stronger influences on news content than individual-level factors, suggesting a hierarchical structure of influences in which the higher the level, the stronger the influence. However, no definitive model of influence has emerged.

Media Technology

The proliferation of online media has resulted in a host of new complications for journalists and news organizations. While traditional ethical concepts do not fundamentally change when information is delivered online, the ease and ubiquity of digital media provide new ways of interacting with audience members and story subjects. And everyone is tempted to do things he or she may not otherwise contemplate without the speed and ease of media technology. As one media ethics scholar noted, “Deceptive behavior in cyberspace is . . . not a new moral issue though it raises the problem of ‘moral distance’ with extra urgency . . . The speed of digital communication does not create new forms of immorality, but makes it possible to commit immoral acts so fast one hardly notices” (2000, pp. 34–35). For example, the issue of corrections and retractions in digital journalism has received considerable attention.

Generally, many journalistic organizations, such as the Canadian Association of Journalists, have adopted policies against “unpublishing” erroneous reports from their archives and instead amending corrections to them. News organizations also have felt increasing pressure from story subjects who are embarrassed by content and argue that it is unfair for the news organizations to archive material long after it is no longer relevant. But allowing individuals to “scrub” the public record for their own interests raises deeper questions about the value of independently curated public information, and it also can threaten a key aspect of the journalistic mission, which is to document history. As one journalism educator has said, “Source remorse is not a reason to unpublish.” Unpublishing material also does little to eliminate the “echoes” that likely exist all over the Web on search engines, blogs, and other news sites. Better to correct or amend the existing archived material, which both preserves the integrity of the journalistic process and also fosters credibility through transparent action. For instance, editors at the Boston Globe cited the latter for their decision to correct, but not remove, a live blog post erroneously stating that an arrest had been made shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. In rare cases, a news organization may consider unpublishing a story that is judged to be unethical or even be questionable legally, or when continued accessibility of an archived story may pose a real threat to someone’s well-being. In such cases, many policies urge journalists to look for evidence of concrete harm, such a doctor’s opinion, and for any such decisions to unpublish to be made by consensus, never leaving them to a single person.

The immediacy provided by media technology has enabled journalists to increase their relevance and value and to foster new forms of interaction with audiences. It also can encourage broad collaborative efforts with non-journalists whose perspectives and information can augment journalistic efforts. But that very immediacy can threaten to become deterministic—the value of now can displace ethical concerns of credibility, verification, and care. In the rush to be a part of the conversation and buzz on breaking stories, many news organizations have fallen victim to all stripes of hoaxes. “The development of social networks for real-time news and information, and the integration of social media content in the news media, creates tensions for a profession based on a discipline of verification,” said journalism technology scholar Alfred Hermida. News sites around the world, for example, circulated what turned out to be a fake photo of Osama Bin Laden’s body soon after his death in May 2011. The immediacy of digital technology tempts journalists to post, share, and verify later—often at the cost of their long-term credibility. This risk of compromised integrity or even partiality is a serious concern reflected in the social media policies of most news organizations. The notion of technological determinism—that values emphasized by technology such as convenience tempt us to set aside other values such as respect, conscientiousness, and even safety—has resulted in abetting the perilous impulse in a competitive media system of getting it first rather than getting it right. Critic Evgeny Morozov (2011, p. xvi) calls this “cyber-centrism,” or our tendency to “prioritize the tool over the environment.” The integration of social media also has required journalists to resist the temptation for informality. Several news organizations have adopted explicit policies that reinforce how traditional concerns of ethics as well as etiquette apply to social media. For example, the Associated Press cautions its writers about the peril residing in too-informal use of Twitter:

Twitter, in particular, can present some challenges—with a tight character count and no way to modulate your body language or the volume and tone of your voice, requests that are intended to be sensitive can come across as cold or even demanding. Think about how your tweet would come across if spoken with an angry voice, because that’s just how the recipient may hear it in his head.

Media technology has collapsed time and space in the exchange of information, but it also has arguably initiated a reformation of communication structures. No longer is the news media system a “closed” one in which journalists serve a central gatekeeping function; now we have an “open” system in which the sourcing and distribution of information has been radically democratized and globalized. As many theorists have said, we now have a networked society. Journalists and journalistic brands are now just single nodes among a constellation of voices and sources, all moving in a “shared” information space. This, writes scholar Ansgard Heinrich, “sketches the evolution of an interactive sphere that, at least in theory, fosters a greater level of interaction and exchange. Connection, interaction, and collaboration are the markers of this shift.” This transformation, however, poses many questions for journalism as it has been conventionally understood, in the form of print newspapers and broadcast networks. Who do you link to? How do you distinguish between activist bloggers and more dispassionate collaborators? Do these distinctions matter anymore? And in this new “network journalism,” how are journalists to act responsibly in what is now a global sphere? Scholars have begun insisting that journalists have a responsibility to be more cosmopolitan in their outlook and their framing of news, and to work harder to transcend the “nationalistic” lenses that have traditionally dominated news narratives. As Heinrich argues, “This nationally inward looking focus of news reporting, however, does not do justice to a world (1) where events in one corner of the world might affect the other; (2) where news stories produced by one outlet are not restricted in access to ‘local,’ i.e., national audiences; and (3) in which many voices roam through the spheres of a digitally connected world that might provide an alternative take on a news story.” Globally responsible journalists, then, must break out of the tradition of foreign correspondent narratives that focus almost exclusively on elite or official sources and on how events impact a particular nation, instead engaging in the multitude of activist and “unofficial” sources that provide often competing narratives.

Global Journalism Ethics Theorizing

Much journalism ethics theorizing since the end of the 20th century has been preoccupied with the desire to establish viable ethical norms that transcend cultural boundaries and reflect what one researcher referred to as an empirical trend toward “ever-increasing globalization of journalism standards.” Some of this work calls for a media system that relies on a framework of international human rights, or a general veneration of human life, to guide news work regardless of culture. Others have called for a “modified contractualist” approach that would respect differing cultural manifestations of broad principles. Still others insist that any such global framework reject Enlightenment assumptions of the primacy of individual rights and rationality. Too often, claims of journalism standards of behavior remain rooted in Western cultural assumptions and are imperialistically imposed onto non-Western cultures in which the values of social stability and collective well-being replace individualistic models. As one scholar observed, “It is a global reality that the common concerns we have as human beings coexist with differences of ethical thinking and priorities in different cultures. This coexistence of common ground and different places plays out in the work of journalists across the world.” Notwithstanding the rarity with which the value of press freedom is enshrined in Western media systems, American and European scholars and journalistic organizations continue to dominate journalism ethics discourse. As a result, that discourse is focused on protecting journalistic functions with the rule of law and insulating them from power and identity politics. The European Federation of Journalists, for example, released a report in 2015 examining the effects of chronic corruption in 18 countries, noting how “media managers are doing ‘deals’ with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as news, how editors are being bribed by politicians or corporate managers and how this whole process makes it increasingly difficult to separate journalism from propaganda from public relations.” But voices from other parts of the world are joining the discourse on press freedom and journalism ethics. Many sociology and philosophy scholars on the African continent have offered critiques of postcolonial systems to promote journalism institutions (e.g., Kasoma, 1996; Wasserman, 2006). In 2015, the Journal of Media Ethics published a special issue devoted to the notion of ubuntu as a guiding framework for media practice—the idea common among several south African cultures that individual flourishing is possible only through community belonging and social identity. The widespread practice of journalists accepting gifts and cash in exchange for favorable treatment—called “brown-envelope” journalism in Nigeria and “red-envelope” journalism in China—is receiving an increased amount of attention by journalism sociology scholars around the world (Xu, 2016). The practice in China was an intrinsic part of the commercialization of the media system in China beginning in the 1980s, and was actually initiated by foreign companies to entice journalists to attend press conferences (Zhao, 1998).

Cultural diversity notwithstanding, research worldwide has identified several key areas and concepts that concern journalists across cultures. These include truth-telling, accuracy, factualness, objectivity, credibility, balance, verification, independence, fairness, accountability, honesty, and respect. Of course, many of these overlap, and they can apply to one or more of the influence levels referred to previously. But many journalism ethics scholars agree that these are not enough. It is shared moral principles, rather than agreed-upon practices, that can bind responsible journalists around the world in ethical solidarity. As scholar Clifford Christians (2010, p. 6) argues:

Without a defensible conception of the good, our practices are arbitrary. How can we condemn violent practices such as suicide bombings in the name of jihad except through widely accepted principles? We are stunned at the blatant greed and plundering of the earth, but without norms we are only elitists and hot-tempered moralists. Conflicts among people, communities, and nations need principles other than their own for their resolution. A credible ethics, as a minimum, must be transnational in character.

Christians and others argue that such a global media ethic cannot start with conventional morality that assumes a superior rationality, such as that of Kant. Instead, it must begin with a much more “naturalistic” principle: universal human solidarity, which prioritizes human dignity, truth, and nonviolence, all of which are grounded in the notion of the sacredness of life. In addition to this notion, scholars point to the fundamentally social reality of human existence—that despite the predominance of Western individualism, our realities and even our identities are arguably rooted in interaction and community belonging. In this reality, communication is central, as it is through exchange that we understand ourselves and we see the importance of “the Other”—individuals we encounter who may not share our culture or perspective, but whose existence requires respect and validation. Again, Christians, drawing on a long line of earlier philosophers, explains: “Communication is not the transference of knowledge but a dialogic encounter of subjects creating it together.” This leads us to a framework of “anthropological realism” that provides a hopeful basis for a global media ethic. It is anthropological in nature because it is rooted in the realities of human existence rather than claims about any rationalistic ideals. It is realist in that it insists morality has an explicit character that exists independently of our perceptions and judgements. For the moral realist, moral claims of rightness or wrongness are true regardless of any beliefs an individual might have about them. The casual observer, however, might see an immediate problem with such a framework, a problem wrestled with by philosophers since antiquity: what exactly is the nature of the “good” and how do we apprehend it? Is there more to a moral claim than a sort of intuition that we just know right from wrong? And how might journalists articulate this framework of moral realism in the judgements they make about news, about ethnic conflict, about graphic images? In journalism ethics scholarship, these debates continue.

Moral Psychology Research

Broad-brushed, deductive theorizing such as that discussed previously is one active area of journalism ethics research. But other researchers are increasingly acknowledging the need for more empirical work that seeks to better understand ethical reasoning processes on the ground by bringing long-established psychology measurements to bear. This moral psychology research draws on important philosophical concepts as well as instruments that assess beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions to explore possible patterns and relationships among factors in ethical decision-making. Recent cross-cultural research involving interviewing journalists around the globe, led by German researcher Thomas Hanitzsch, suggests that they perceive notions of objectivity, accuracy, and truth-telling as “core elements” of a widely accepted ethic for journalism practice. Journalists, of course, have been socialized into these norms through formal journalism education as well as through immersion in the newsroom culture, with its internal system of sanctions and rewards by peers and superiors based on the perceived quality of one’s work. Other researchers emphasize that social psychological processes resulting in bias perceptions, such as social validation and attitude stabilization, also must be recognized as evident in the work of journalists.

Moral development theory provides several models to help explain how individuals’ moral agency and sense of morality evolve over the course of a lifetime. The most widely cited moral development theory is that of Lawrence Kohlberg, who has argued that our moral development is tied largely to two factors. One is the degree to which we internalize moral principles that apply to all and move away from relativistic thinking—the notion that moral decisions regarding what is “right” are strictly “relative” to one’s own personal values rather than any broader moral principles. The other, closely related to the first, is the sophistication and scope of our understanding of the concept of justice. Our moral development, Kohlberg argues, can be assessed as existing in one of six stages. Based on Kohlberg’s theory, researchers have refined and widely used a survey instrument that measures one’s moral reasoning skills based on these two factors. By assessing the frequency with which respondents draw on higher-order justifications when presented with a moral dilemma, the Defining Issues Test (DIT) has enabled researchers to assess the moral-reasoning skills of various populations such as professional groups. Media researchers Lee Wilkins and Renita Coleman pioneered the application of the DIT to journalists and other media workers, concluding that, because journalists routinely encountered ethical questions in the course of their work, their moral reasoning skills were relatively high compared with workers in other professions.

Another moral psychology instrument that has proven useful in journalism ethics research is the Ethics Position Questionnaire (EPQ) developed by Donelson Forsyth. Because people’s responses to ethical dilemmas are influenced by their worldviews, understanding the basic elements of their outlooks can illuminate the thrust of their ethical judgements. Two such basic elements are key to individuals’ “ethical ideologies.” One is how idealistic they are—that is, to what extent are they optimistic about the actions of others, and to what extent are they concerned about minimizing harm or are more accepting of harmful effects if positive consequences are believed to outweigh them. Another basic element is how relativistic they are—whether they tend to make judgements based primarily on their own interests and perceptions of “rightness” that are relative to their own standing or views, or whether they tend to draw on broader, universal principles to decide what’s ethically justifiable. Using some key items from the Forsyth instrument, the “Worlds of Journalism” project found that most journalists in the 20 countries surveyed tend to embrace universal principles that should be followed regardless of situation and context. They also agreed on the importance of avoiding questionable methods of reporting, even if this means not getting the story. Much less approval—although the extent of it varied between countries—could be found regarding how much personal latitude journalists should have in solving these problems. This desire for flexibility reflects the longstanding tension in ethics between desirable ends and questionable means, as discussed. Many journalists think that in certain situations, some harm to others would be justified if the result supports a greater public good. News workers in Western countries are more likely to disapprove of a contextual and situational ethics. This attitude, however, also exists in non-Western contexts, though less strongly. Chinese, Pakistani, and Russian journalists, on the other hand, tend to be most open to situational ethical practices. Consistent with this result, interviewees in Western contexts showed little support for the idea that journalists should be allowed to set their own individual ethical standards. Similarities between journalists from Western countries also exist with regard to idealism. Although journalists in all countries agreed on the view that questionable methods of reporting should be avoided, those working in Western contexts appreciate this idea more than their colleagues in a developmental and transitional environment. Regarding the acceptance of harmful consequences of reporting for the sake of a greater public good, journalists in most Western countries—but also their colleagues in Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uganda—tend to keep all options on the table. Journalists in Bulgaria, Chile, China, Egypt, Romania, and Russia, on the other hand, exhibit a greater willingness to accept harmful consequences in the course of newsgathering and reporting.

In a study of journalism “exemplars” in the United States—reporters and editors widely respected for their accomplishments and ethical leadership—media ethicist Patrick Plaisance used both the Defining Issues Test and the Ethics Position Questionnaire, along with several other moral psychology instruments. Regarding the journalism exemplars’ moral reasoning, Plaisance found their DIT scores were indeed higher than that of journalists on average. Regarding the EPQ, the journalism exemplars uniformly rejected relativistic thinking as well. There was also a negative relationship between the journalism exemplars’ DIT scores and their degree of idealistic thinking. That is, the higher the exemplars score on the Defining Issues Test, the less they appear to embrace idealistic thinking. This may first appear counterintuitive; it might stand to reason that people with higher DIT scores, associated as they are with greater application of universal principles in moral judgements, also would be rather idealistic in their outlooks. However, it is important to remember that all of the exemplars scored low in relativistic thinking; so the issue is not that the exemplars would be more or less Machiavellian depending on their DIT scores, but to what degree their belief in universal moral standards, and perhaps primarily their concern for harming others, could be applied rigidly or not. The negative correlation with moral-reasoning scores, then, arguably reinforces the suggestion of comparatively greater moral development in that exemplars with the higher DIT scores exhibit a greater ability to adapt their principles to best fit the often complex range of contingencies in which they find themselves having to work. In other words, they are too wise to believe they can insist on a rigid application of moral rules that can fit all circumstances and have become more adept at making the kind of carefully considered, fine-grained distinctions frequently found among moral exemplars of all walks of life.

Other Resources

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2012, Winter). Consequentialism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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