ERIC Identifier: ED314802
Publication Date: 1990-02-00
Author: Gottlieb, Stephen S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Media Ethics: Some Specific Problems. ERIC Digest.
The decade of the 1970s gave rise to a reinvigorated press. Such scandals as
Watergate and the Pentagon Papers case renewed the spirit of "investigative
journalism," and created in many young people a desire to pursue careers as
In the 1980s, incidents occurred and new technologies appeared which together
raised questions about the ethical values of American journalists. This digest
seeks to identify some of those ethical issues and to point to the work of those
who have studied these issues.
IMAGINARY ADDICTS AND A TELEVISED SUICIDE
reporter Janet Cooke received the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for her feature story, "Jimmy's World," the account of an eight-year old, tenement-bound heroin addict.
Publication of the story set off widespread demands for the government to do
more about the scourge of drugs in society. A few days after Cooke accepted the
Pulitzer, it became evident that she had made up the story.
In detailing the events of the Janet Cooke incident, David L. Eason focuses
on the pressures which may have led Cooke to concoct her report (Eason, 1986).
Eason theorizes that Cooke, a young, black, female reporter, may have felt
compelled to give the liberal, white, male editors of the Post exactly what they
seemed to demand: stories portraying the horrors of ghetto life. In Eason's
view, the editors would not have sent out one of their own (i.e., a male white
reporter) into the urban slums to obtain details of life there. As such, the
paper made itself overly dependent on material supplied by inexperienced
reporters like Cooke.
Eason sees the end of the Cooke story as taking on mythical trappings.
Established journalism, in the role of the defender of the faith, ultimately
cast out the violator of its moral code. Cooke's ostracism from the profession
was seen, at least by many within the established press, as a necessary step in
the protection of the standards of truthfulness and accuracy in journalism.
One incident in which journalism could not so easily assume a mantle of
purity was the suicide of Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer. On January
22, 1987 Dwyer, who had been convicted of racketeering and mail fraud, called a
news conference. As the TV cameras rolled and the reporters awaited the
official's anticipated resignation announcement, Dwyer pulled out a revolver and
ended his life. Some of Pennsylvania's television and radio stations broadcast
only partial recordings of the event; one TV station ran the entire tape of the
suicide. As Matviko (1988) points out, those media outlets that declined to
carry the entire suicide took a somewhat holier-than-thou stance regarding the
incident. The station that showed its viewers the shooting was defensive about
its editorial decision. Interestingly, a survey of more than 800 viewers showed
that members of the public were fairly evenly divided between those who
supported the decision to carry the shooting in its entirety (46%) and those who
opposed the choice (54%).
MEDIA ETHICS AND THE NEW TECHNOLOGIES
With the 1980s came
new developments in the manner in which information was presented to the public.
Photographic methods improved, enabling newspapers and magazines to show to
their readers images that reflected an "improved" vision of reality. But as is
true of many new techniques and inventions, the advancements in photography
raised ethical questions. Some of these issues were addressed by Shiela Reaves
in her article, "Digital Alteration of Photographs in Magazines: An Examination
of the Ethics" (1989).
As Reaves explains, new computer processes permit editors to alter the
content of photographic images. Colors can be controlled, and objects or people
can be removed from or added to pictures. Furthermore, if the changes are made
carefully, they are virtually undetectable. To confuse the issue, negatives can
be manufactured from an altered image to create "proof" that the photograph
represents reality. The ethical issue is obvious: how far can photo editors take
the alteration process while still purporting to present to readers a genuine
Reaves asked twelve magazine editors about their publications' practices with
respect to computer enhancement of photographs. The editors unanimously claimed
that they would refuse to apply the technique to news photographs. One
respondent labeled such retouching "never...morally justifiable."
While the editors decried tampering with news photographs, most of them saw
no ethical difficulty in adjusting the backgrounds of cover photographs to fit
headlines and so on. Some also saw nothing wrong with deleting stray objects
Reaves found that non-news magazines freely adjust elements of photographs
for the best possible presentation. For instance, a home decorating publication
might delete an unattractive curtain from the window of an otherwise
"picture-perfect" home. A food magazine might erase a cigarette butt from a
plateful of the consummate holiday feast.
MEDIA ETHICS AND CODES OF CONDUCT
What happens when a
reporter derives personal gain or allows others to achieve such gain from his
inside information about his organization's publication plans? Stories in the
prestigious Wall Street Journal have frequently helped determine the success or
failure of a business venture. During the 1980s, a Journal reporter was found to
have contributed to insider trading by passing tips along as to when his paper
would carry stories about firms. This event was mentioned in an especially
thought-provoking article by Robert E. Drechsel entitled "The Legal Risks of
Social Responsibility" (1987). Drechsel suggests that in such cases as the
Journal incident, the existence of an internal policy or code of ethics could
backfire on a news organization. In Drechsel's view, a party alleging that a
news organization has committed libel (or in the insider trading case, a
government prosecutor alleging that a reporter has practiced insider trading)
can point to the code of ethics as a standard of care for the organization. For
example, if a newspaper's policy required double confirmation of facts, a person
alleging that a story was printed in disregard of its truth or falsity could
point to the lack of a second confirmation as "proof" of such disregard.
Drechsel identifies other risks inherent in ethical codes. If there were an
industry-wide code to which most medium- and large-market radio news operations
adhered, a small-market station might find it difficult or impossible to meet
the standards set by the code. A city hall reporter in Boston might have no
trouble in offering a public official the opportunity to deny an allegation of
misconduct before the accusation is broadcast, if a code so required. However, a
reporter in Smalltown, USA, who doubles as station engineer and afternoon
announcer, facing time and resource constraints, could find it difficult or
impossible to meet such a standard.
In "The Case against Mass Media Codes of Ethics," Jay Black and Ralph Barney
offer two major arguments against ethical codes for news reporting (1985).
First, such standards are inconsistent with the notion of an unregulated press
as envisioned by the First Amendment. As the authors suggest, protection of a
free press is but a facet of protection of everyone's free expression. Each
person best develops as an individual and a citizen if he or she is free to
obtain whatever information may contribute to that growth. Governmental control
of the media, or even self-imposed regulations to which all reporters must
comply, limits the flow of such information.
Black and Barney's second argument against ethical codes for the news
profession emerges from the difference between what they label "moral
philosophy" and mere "moralizing." The authors suggest that a genuine moral
philosophy evolves within the reporter as that person gains experience. On the
other hand, codes merely advise as to the industry's view of what is appropriate
behavior. The codes remove the need for reporters to become what Black and
Barney refer to as "professional philosophers" who are capable of making their
own decisions about what is right and wrong.
If codes of ethics are ineffective means of securing good journalistic
practices, what would work better? John C. Merrill offers one answer in the
title of his essay, "Good Reporting Can Be a Solution to Ethics Problem" (1987).
Merrill would set the standard of ethical journalism at simply expecting the
reporter to write a good story. As he sees it, expecting the journalist to
expound upon the ramifications of an event is empty moralizing. Merrill would
also call upon reporters to abandon the claim of objectivity (an obviously
unobtainable goal) for an admitted subjectivity which the reporters constantly
work to overcome.
Journalists themselves accept Merrill's view that objectivity equals
ethicality, but they see objectivity as a reasonable goal. When Merrill asked 50
reporters and 50 journalism educators whether an accurate story is an ethical
story (Merrill, 1985), 64% of the reporters agreed. Conversely, only about half
as many of the educators took the same position. Almost all of the journalists
had faith in the possibility of objective journalism, while almost all of the
educators negated that possibility.
Black, Jay and Ralph Barney. "The Case against
Mass Media Codes of Ethics." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1985, 15 p. [ED 259 348]
Drechsel, Robert E. "The Legal Risks of Social Responsibility." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1987, 35 p. [ED 282 222]
Eason, David L. "On Journalistic Authority: The Janet Cooke Scandal," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3, December 1986, 429-47. [EJ 343 549]
Matviko, John. "How Far Do You Go and How Much Do You Show: Pittsburgh Television News Media and the R. Budd Dwyer Suicide." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Communication Association, 1988, 18 p. [ED 294 257]
Merrill, John C. "Is Ethical Journalism Simply Objective Reporting? Journalism Quarterly 62, Summer 1985, 391-93.
Merrill, John C. "Good Reporting Can Be a Solution to Ethics Problem," Journalism Educator 42, Autumn 1987, 27-29. [EJ 357 906]
Reaves, Shiela. Digital Alteration of Photographs in Magazines: An Examination of the Ethics. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1989. [ED 310 444]