Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, January 11, 2008

Media Ethics.02

How do you judge what is and isn't ethical? What do you use for standards? Are there specific steps you go through to decide?

29 comments:

Yanna said...

The question of what is ethical and what is non-ethical can have an extremely complex answer or a logical yet simplistic answer. It all depends on what one characterizes as "good" or "bad". But who has the right to define what is truly good? Lying might be considered unethical but what if a lie aided in saving a person's life? In my opinion the world is in shades of gray. That being said, I try to (most of the time anyway) make decisions that hurt the least amount of people but my decision would also have to benefit me. But sometimes my decisions can end up hurting more people because it is impossible to know how decisions could impact people in the future.

bexis said...
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Ian said...

My ethics go along with my gut feelings. I can't exactally say how I decide what is ethical and what is not, but I guess it may be a very utilitarian viewpoint. Which action will benefit the most people? Then to add to my instant equation, that runs through my head rather quickly mind you, are the people benefiting from the action worth it? It seems rather black and white, but it's not. Another question that hasn't been identified here: Do we as people consider ourselves ethical? I feel that I'm not the most morally correct, but at the same time, I feel my moral compass points the right way a majority of the time for sure.

Raizza said...
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Raizza said...

It depends on the situation to decide on what is right and wrong...ethics is a set of principles that need to be followed in any given community whether it's in the business, media, employment, etc...


For example, people who are unethical don't exactly follow these principles. They tend to embelish or exagerrate stories in order to gain controversy. Some of these controversial issues or stories tend to lure readers and consumers into believing these stories. (to be marketable and sellable) So on and so forth...

Crediting valid resources, objective reasoning, and protecting interviewee rights are important duties of a true journalist.

With that in mind, a true journalist should be respected by its community; colleagues, corporate/business officials, and the media.

A little off-topic:

Does anyone remember Dan Rather's incident with CBS?


Rather allegedly used forged documents on a story that involved the president's military service history. According to MSNBC.com, Rather believes CBS used him as a "scapegoat" to discharged him from his anchor position after 25 years. Rather is suing CBS for $70 million dollars.

homer said...
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lisa said...
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lisa said...

When I was trying to prepare for this class last week I started by looking up the dictionary entry for ethics. According to dictionary.com it is defined as 1. a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
2. the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
3. moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.
4. (usually used with a singular verb) that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethics

... not that I didn't have a sense of what the word "ethics" generally meant but knowing that it's definition separates the personal "ethics" from the ethics of a business culture "media ethics" left me more unsure of my own ethical standpoints as criteria for what is ethical/unethical in today's media. It also made me extra aware of all of the ethical standpoints, religious, political, moral, that play into what is "ok" in todays media.

So I then decided to put my personal ethical values aside and research the journalistic view of ethics and found this website: http://journalism.org/resources/ethics_codes

... each news organization and media have defined their own code of "media ethics."

Personal ethics, societal ethics, media guidelines and handbooks for ethics, that's what I got.

I'm stuck with my own grandfather's advice repeating in my mind, he used to say something like "If it makes you feel like crap after you've done it then it probably isn't good."

... But what about an article I helped write about a woman accused of sexually abusing a student before she was actually found guilty, that made me feel kind of crappy...

I'm expecting a term used often by Miraldi to recur in this class... the "slippery slope."

Kaitlyn said...

When it comes to judging what is and is not ethical, I think the entire situation needs to be taken into consideration. I don't feel I can answer this question without knowing what happened and why it happened. It is much more complex then it seems. For example, the majority of the population would probably say that stealing is unethical. However, what if a mother was stealing food to keep her child alive? Yes, the fact that she stole is still not right, but maybe the reason why she needed to steal gives the unethical action some type of justification.
I don't necessarily think that there are any particular steps that i go through to decide if something is ethical or not. Instead, I usually ask myself the questions "who is this hurting" and "who is this helping?"
One person's views on what is ethical or not can be completely different then anothers; therefore, every situation needs to be judged differently.

Ian said...
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Howie Good said...

These responses are intriguing, if not always internally consistent. I don't want to comment too specifically just yet on what's been said so far, but it does seem to me that (1) most of you are utilitarians, but that (2) it's difficult for people to ever know exactly what the utility or consequences of their actions or decisions will be in the future, which (3) makes utilitarianism a rather problematic ethical philosophy. Utilitarianism is a forward-facing, future-oriented form of ethics. Aren't there, though, ethical obligations we contract based on past actions (for example, when we wrong someone or make a promise to someone)? In other words, utilitarianism, for all its seemingly pragmatic nature, leaves many kinds of activities and events unaddressed.

One more thing to think about: which is more trustworthy, private ethical intuition or codified ethical principles?

Thomas said...

I don't believe there is a way to judge what is and isn't ethical. There are too many different beliefs, values and morals for this question to have one simplified and specific answer. Also, depending on one's own personal experiences, their answers and views are going to vary. As far as I'm concerned, I believe that noone is to judge whether a action is ethical or not because who are we to say what is right or wrong? Of course, if the act is violent or of a harmful nature, that is excluded. However, the best way I can say what is ethical is by describing it as an act causing the greatest good. Unethical is the opposite-the immoral act impeding on the good.

Anonymous said...

I judge what is and isn’t ethical by instinct. I use my intuition to decide if something is ethical because of the many contrary views and judgments out in the world. So many rights and wrongs are thrown at us about lying, cheating, and stealing, most of the time I get confused; I don’t know what to follow; I don’t know what to believe. I do know right from wrong; positive from negative, and that helps me define whether or not something is ethical.
Sometimes I use society, laws, and most importantly my feelings for standards of ethics. I must say they keep me grounded and sane, as well as create a sense of balance in life.
If something is ethical in my eyes, the pros must outweigh the cons and if it is unethical the cons must outweigh the pros. I must convince myself of all the good to determine something is rather ethical.

Jenn M said...

I also feel there is no one way to define what is and is not ethical. I believe different people have different views on what is right and wrong. I personally have my own ideas on what I think is right and wrong, but I also understand that other people have different backgrounds and experiences which make them think differently.
I wouldn’t say I have any specific standards or steps to decide whether I think something is ethical or not ethical, I just try to do what I think is right in a situation at the time, and try not to do what I think is wrong.
Also even when people do feel that something is unethical, it doesn’t stop them from doing it. I know it hasn’t always stopped me. I could thing that something is unethical, but if it would benefit me and other people, how could it be so wrong?

Howie Good said...

If there's no definite right or wrong, or no specific steps or critieria to use to reach an ethical decision, then what constitutes ethical journalism and how do we attain it? By the way, if you don't act unethically because you fear being caught, that doesn't necessarily mean you've acted ethically. In other words, intention may have something essential to do with ethics.

And is something right just because I think it's so? Lying? Stealing? Killing? Am I (or you) safe from others' depredations if ethics is just what anyone thinks it is?

lisa said...

Professor Good said "One more thing to think about: which is more trustworthy, private ethical intuition or codified ethical principles?

Well what should I do? I'm left with a question... stumped. I want to know if there is a definitive answer... I want everything to have a beginning and end so I can wrap my brain around it- really just so I can be the one with the right answer - but that would be so boring and someone smart would have already answered the question "why."

Right - I feel uncomfortable with accepting that any means to an ethical end should be the absolute when so many consequences caused by the means might branch off into their own little unethical situations.(Sacrifice the little guy for the sake of community reminiscent of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.")

I also feel uncomfortable placing judgments of good and bad, on anything. When I do I start to feel the "codified ethical principles" of religion start to bubble up and I retract. Besides I'm trying to be objective right? Ughh.

I'm not a moral absolutist... If someone is convicted of murdering his parent I may think its less wrong if he is a 15-year-old severely abused child... so the actions before the "wrong" situation deem the outcome less unethical?

I get lost trying to apply this to media. How does this test weigh out the right and wrong of, say, printing the name of a rape victim or corporate manipulation of news? Guess I'll need to wait for the class.

Howie Good said...

I'm not sure class will provide Lisa or anyone else (including me!) with definitive answers, but I can promise that it'll get you thinking more deeply about ethical issues, which is in itself a step toward becoming a more ethical person and professional, or so I believe.

Ashley said...

For me ethics is about making choices and being able to sleep at night. I think family and friends are always a huge part of a persons ethics. As parents, people try to teach their children to know right from wrong. My parents passed on their ethics to me. When faced with a choice I consider what I think is the best choice and how I will feel after. If I will feel proud and happy or guilty. Also, I consider how it will effects the people around me, people in my life that I care about. Ethics of the people we surround ourselves with, I think will effect a persons own ethics.

Howie Good said...

Ashley makes an interesting point -- that though we tend to put the burden of ethical decision-making on the individual, the group or workplace to which that individual belongs can have a significant effect on how and what the individual decides. For example, if you work in a place where ethics have low priority, then ethicis are likely to have low priority for you personally. Are newsrooms such places today? Classrooms? Maybe we can talk about this Thursday.

Kristen said...

I really agree with Ashley about having ethical codes sort of handed down by your parents. I believe that everyone sort of has some ethical ideas that are created by your environment growing up. They may not completely be the way you judge ethical dilemmas, but they do contribute. For me, I was taught the strict Catholic ethical code as a child, my parents pushed it upon me as a child and, without real knowledge of another code, that is what I followed. Growing up and learning about more situations and understanding the gray areas, I moved away from that Catholic code. However, I still find myself considering it whenever I'm in a ethical dilemma. Sure, I don't really believe people can judge what is "good" or "bad", and there are so many different religions, beliefs and ethical codes, there is really no "right" one. People (like myself) take what they were taught at a young age and incorporate it into the person and the kind of thinking they do now.

Besides the sort of "Catholic" code I judge ethics by, I really think I focus on what is best for me and the people around me. It's not to say that one can't make an ethical decision without hurting anyone, sometimes that is necessary for the greater good, but I think an ethical decision really involves consideration for both yourself and others.

lorraine said...

There is no black and white for determining what is and isn't ethical; their are always shades of gray. I judge what is and isn't ethical by the standards I was raised with. However, those standards may not always be the right choice. Even though people may create and use certain codes or principles, it doesn't mean that they are correct or can always be followed. No two situations are often the same, therefore changing the outcome. When I am trying to decide if something is or isn't ethical, there are definitely steps I go through to decided. I am a terrible decision maker to begin wtih, (I could spend an hour trying to choose what type of pens to buy). However, for more serious issues, I typically ask myself what will happen if I make that specific decision. I typically look forward rather than at the present when deciding. Call me a geek, but I also ask myself, what will my parents think of me or what would they do? What would my friends think of me? My co-workers? Then I take myself into consideration and think about how the decision will make me feel. Will I hate myself in the long-run for making this decision? Will I let others down? There are tons of questions to be asked when making an ethical or non-ethical decision. The tricky part is that there are tons of different answers to those tons of questions.

O said...

I would judge anything is ethical to be the true and when one id following the book. Being unethical is the lies,backstabbing some would to use to get to the top. i feel there is only one standard/steps that can be make about ethical is staying true to the book and you will suceed

Kim A said...

I judge what is and is not ethical based on my upbringing and my environment, which I am a product of. My standards are based on morals, customs and codes of conduct installed upon me by my elders such as parents, grandparents and educators. If something is justifiable then it is moral. I think something is ethical when the majority of the party involved agrees that this particular "act" is right or wrong. Therefore, I think that codified ethical standards are more credible than private ethical standards because as I mentioned before the majority has come to some sort of consensus.

Jimmy said...

I judge what is and what is not ethical by if I see it as right or wrong. I try to take into account all the circumstances that are in the situation and make the best decision I can.

How I come to the conclusion to what is right and wrong comes from my, upbringing, my parents, our culture, my emotional feelings, and logic (unless I make a completely rash and hasty decision which happens a lot).

To apply this to media I believe that as long as someone tries to tell the truth to better educate the public on an important issue they are acting ethical.

So overall, I'm not sure if ethics can go beyond the personal level. I don't believe there can just be a general consensus on an issue because a lot of good hearted people can be convinced something very bad is a good thing. But then again each person convinced of that bad thing went through a personal decision. So really, I have no idea. I guess that's why we'll spend a whole semester on this!

Ryan said...

Ethics is defined as a system of principles and rules which implement right or wrong. It is very difficult to decipher what is or is not ethical because everyone has a different sense of ethics. For the most part ethics are affected by many factors such as cultural upbringings. In general, whatever leads to good consequences or to the positive results is viewed as ethical, where as whatever leads to negative results is viewed as unethical. However, as with anything else this is case sensitive. Many will argue that the war in Iraq is ethical because America rid their government of a tyrant while combating terrorism. However, others might argue it is unethical because many innocent lives are being lost during this war. Which side has the correct view on ethics? Many will argue one way or the other, but who can really determine who is ultimately right?

Rachel said...

I think ethics are generally defined by our culture. Our laws define what we as a country consider to be right and wrong. To narrow our ethical beliefs down even further we look to our hometown, or wherever we live. We adjust ourselves to the beliefs and standards if we move from one place to another. Next might be religious beliefs or ideas. Even if you are not actively involved with a religious group, you may still conduct your life based on rules or practices from a spiritual idea. From here we look to our friends, teachers, jobs, and family to individualize our ethical standards even further. In general ethics are based on ones surrounding environment and influences. I myself have been heavily influenced by my parents. However, the experiences I have had on my own have shaped my individual ethical beliefs, and in some cases completely contradicted those of my parents. I think the majority of your basic right and wrong ethical issues are permanently imbedded into your psyche as a child. You learn from your parents right away that stealing is bad and you should hit your brother. Although, you may be previewed to some more complicated ethical issues at a young age, I think you really don’t have a solid opinion on them until you are able to fully understand all the factors that are involved. I think even after you decide what is or isn’t ethical, depending on the person, you can change you opinions as your influences change.

Jillian said...

My ethical education came in the form of “morality quizzes” administered by my father when I was very young. During car rides he’d say “A teenager goes into the grocery store and steals a bag of candy to share with his friends. Is that right or wrong?” I’d answer “wrong.” Then he’d ask “A poor woman goes into the grocery store and steals bread and milk for her starving children. Is that right or wrong? I’d answer “right.” Then I’d be treated to an ice cream or some other little reward.

It would be only a few short years before my father and I would discuss whether the answers to these hypothetical questions would be any different if the boy only stole because he was threatened by his bullying “friends” or if the woman was only poor because she spent all her money on crack.

I’d venture to say that some people - maybe some of you – are appalled by these teachings. After all, we’re generally taught that some things (like stealing, lying, and killing) are inherently wrong. But we can’t miss the greater lesson in my old man’s morality games: Compassion. Yes, my father wanted to raise an honest, fair, child, but he wanted me to know why honesty and fairness are so important – and where strict honesty and fairness crosses the line into cruelty. He wanted compassion for others to guide my decisions and inform my choices.

In my personal life my code of ethics is a bit more lax than the code I adhere to in the professional and academic world. I’ll mislead or exaggerate or make a wild accusation to prove a point or protect a friend, sometimes. But true friends share the mutual understanding that they love each other. Try explaining that you only misled your readers because you “love” them. It doesn’t work that way. For example, I will tell a friend a “white lie” to minimize harm, but there is no way I would ever print what I knew to be a falsehood. In the news room my ethics are far more Kantian. As a reporter we are expected to seek the truth and report it, and I believe that any violation of the reader’s trust is absolutely wrong. Still, I am able to adopt a deontological system (which I oppose in so many situations) for the sake of my unshakeable belief in “the greater good.” Sometimes implementing a Kantian system of ethics is pretty utilitarian after all. Confusing? Yeah, I know. Black and White has never been my forte.

My ethical education continues to this day and, I imagine, will never cease to evolve. At the bottom of it all, I believe that I would have a problem with any ethical system that wasn’t firmly rooted in a deep sense of compassion.

Jamie said...

When deciding the basis of what is ethically acceptable, there are many factors to be taken into consideration. I strongly believe that the standards of what is and is not ethical vary between individuals. The morals my parents instilled in me from childhood, and my own first hand accounts, heavily influence my criteria for what is ethical but may have no effect on what others may find right or wrong. In an ever changing world, it seems that conventionalities of ethics are waning. The gap between what is ethical and unethical has diminished, and many people have no problem crossing these boundaries. On a personal account, a few weeks ago I was rear ended by a woman out in Newburgh. The damage was about $900 to fix my cracked bumper; however my car is very old and already has much cosmetic damage. I could have made a claim, collected the insurance money and kept it to pay my student loans, like many people I know have done. I was troubled by this for nearly a week, but I couldn’t help but think of the women who appeared to be on low income, and stated that she had four children at home. Ethically, I could not set this woman back financially any further than she already was, and I decided one more dent wouldn’t make a difference in my car. However, I have several friends who would have brushed this woman off, disregarding the ethics of the situation. I rely on one philosophy when regarding ethics; if you doubt the ethical standpoint of the situation, go with your feeling because you are the one who will have to deal with the consequences of your decision in the end. However it is important to take the entire context of the situation into account and who and what your decision will affect.

ashley said...

personal ethics differe from people and their experiences. What I concider to be ethical has to do with a combination haveing to do with some of my traditional religious believes, personal wisdom (up till now) of good and bad...personal observation and testing couriosity. I use all me personal data (collected over time) and apply them accordingdingly. I think ethics are influenced by peoples upbringings, culture and society influences. One persons ethics may differ from another...that is way we need laws and restrictions on certain things to keep things clear cut of right and wrong.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.