Although philosophers have long inquired into the nature of meaning, truth, and value, Media Ethics is a fairly recent domain within Applied Ethics. Obviously, the first question is: “What is Media?” Based on what we’ve covered so far in this class, the term “The Media” can refer to either a collective institution or an individual “professional journalist.” Both have descriptive and prescriptive dimensions; that is, we can inquire into the facts of how and why the Media behaves in various contexts; and the values that dictate how and why it ought to behave one way rather than another.
Let’s agree from the outset that, aside from various Pleistocene grunts and gestures, the first “medium” for human expression was the spoken word. However that initial mode of mass communication was limited by: the distance the human voice can travel, by the number of possible listeners, and by the limits of human memory. So for the most part, Media Ethics became an issue with the invention of the written word and a series of successive technological innovations (clay tablets, paper, radio, telephone, television, and Internet), all of which allowed for the increasingly efficient transmission of information (Truth) and disinformation (Falsehood) within and between communities and between generations. These innovations also exerted a profound influence on the size, scale, and nature of both business and politics.
Today, what we call “The Media” can be either a publically owned (political entity) or privately owned (business entity). The primary purpose of the modern media is to employ information and/or disinformation in order to shape the relationship between public institutions, private institutions, and individuals. In this course we will focus on Media Ethics as a subset of corporate Business Ethics; and subject to moral analysis via Stakeholder Theory and Stockholder Theory.
So what is a “good” privately-owned Media outlet? According to stockholder theory ,
corporate success involves both cooperation and competition between stakeholders: stockholders, employees, consumers, sub-contractors, financiers, and the local community. Profit for the owners is earned based on competition between buyers, between sellers, and between buyers and sellers. Profit for most news outlets is contingent upon selling advertising to other corporations. Profitability is ultimately based on how many buyers experience any given news show, and how much of the advertised products and/or services are purchased by buyers. Therefore, the most profitable media outlets must attract and retain buyers who habitually experience their programs, and respond to those commercials.
Entertainment of buyers is psychological, which inevitably involves both reason and emotion. Some forms of news entertainment invoke rationality or rational arguments; however, most rely on the cultivation of emotions, especially stories that incite laughter, sex and/or violence. But news outlets are also in the business of selling information (Truth), which often fuels conflict between Truth Value and Entertainment Value. The lead news stories in both local and national news shows are almost always “bad news.” World news shows are usually headlined by natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes etc.) or warfare (especially terrorism). In Cincinnati, local news shows usually emphasize: gang-related shootings, police violence, murders, domestic violence, automobile accidents, and fires. According to Stockholder Theory, if this is what consumers want to see on the news, then this is what the market demands. Media ethics, according to stockholder theory refers the morality of the owners. Ethical corporations are more likely to survive and/or earn a profit.
Stakeholder theory argues that it’s the editor’s job to pursue (blend) the interests of all of the various stakeholder groups, not just those of the stockholders. Utilitarian critics of news shows might argue that even if “bad news” sells, excessive emphasis on bad news leads to negative social utility ratios; especially fearful communities that are prone to exploitation by those who sell safety and/or security. Journalists who dutifully expose business ineptitude run the risk of alienating corporate sponsors.
“Good journalists” possess a specific skill set that allows them to uncover the Truth, and another skill set that allows them to present that Truth clearly and accurately. The most skilled journalists possess both, however many others lack one or the other. Being a less-skilled researcher or presenter is not immoral. An immoral researcher deliberately fabricates the known Truth or deliberately presents it unclearly; usually to incite fear, protect a crony or punish an enemy. In the recent past, journalists were expected to focus on researching and presenting the Facts; but not the moral interpretation of those facts. Today journalists are also expected to interpret at least some Facts and express moral judgments. Most news media outlets and journalists also endorse various political candidates, which ultimately raises the specter of conflict of interest.
Finally, since the time of Plato, totalitarian political regimes seek to control the media; often under the guise of advancing the “greater good.” However, there is also a long tradition in Western Liberalism that values Freedom of the Press. Hence, a “Good Press” limits the power and growth of government, by exposing governmental incompetency and/or corruption. Unfortunately, this Western Liberal mandate is often in conflict with its mandate to entertain and earn a profit. So, should the “news” be monopolized by government (for the greater good), or should it be exposed to free market competition? Is there a credible third option?
1. Does the “Media” really serve multiple purposes and do those purposes often conflict? Give examples.
2. Would the “free market” weed out the “good media” or the “bad media?” Explain. Give examples.
3. Do media outlets that provide a platform for “free speech” but do not contribute content have any rights or duties? Should government regulate Facebook and Twitter? If so what should those regulations be?
4. Would you buy stock in a financially profitable Media corporation that frequently publishes bogus news articles and wallows in sensationalism? Think stockholder ethics.