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Mass Media Ethics


Too often the debate over media ethics provokes the knee jerk response,What ethics? To say that many people question the medias professional integrity is an understatement. Skepticism aside, most citizens still believe that the foremost objective of the media is to keep the public abreast of current events and issues. We, the public, have the expectation from the media to present this information in an honest, accurate, and timely fashion. And deep down, we do still believe that they are credible sources of informationwhy else would we continually turn to them if we didnt?

Unfortunately, in this age of rapid privatization and commercial entertainment, the media often fall short in fulfilling our expectations of ethical journalism. By falsifying, or exaggerating information, leaking privileged information in a story, and transmitting partisan information with little scrutiny, the big media conglomerates have undermined their reputations as objective messengers of news. These actions on the part of the media reduce their medium from an art form to mere tabloid journalism.


This is not to say that the journalists themselves are unethical. Rather, the system they work within frequently encourages unethical behaviour. Pressure to attract readership, satisfy advertisers and write within newspaper guidelines, often put pressure on journalists to behave unethically.

We need to recognize that media ethics do not end with blaming the media system. The right to demand truthful, objective, and responsible news from the media is a fundamental one. Are we, as consumers of information, in any way responsible for the unfortunate state media, and the ethics that govern it? Have we allowed ourselves to be fed half truths and lies? Have we grown complacent to this form of unethical journalism? Must we stand up, demand ethical journalism, and refuse to back down until we get what we deserve: the full unbiased truth?




Cases Study


By Bob Steele


Can Ethics Trump Law?

Six criteria to help you decide when it's OK to break the law.


Should journalists ever break the law to report a story? Is there a justification for putting ethical obligations above legal obedience?

Those questions are at the heart of the debate about the ABC News report that tested security at American ports. ABC News producers shipped a container containing depleted uranium from Jakarta, Indonesia to the United States.

ABC News said its "project involved a shipment to Los Angeles of just under 15 pounds of depleted uranium, a harmless substance that is legal to import into the United States."

ABC NEWS reported that U.S. Government screeners failed to detect the depleted uranium in that container. ABC News said this was the second year in a row that the government screeners failed this same test.

The ABC News website quotes Tom Cochran, a nuclear physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "which lent the material to ABC News for the project."


"If they can't detect that, then they can't detect the real thing," Cochran said. The ABC News website reports "Cochran said the highly enriched uranium used for nuclear weapons would, with slightly thicker shielding, give off a signature similar to depleted uranium in the screening devices currently being used by homeland security officials at American ports."

Some government officials say ABC News went too far in their reporting methods. The Washington Post quotes Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy: "It appears they violated the law, and the Justice Department is taking a look at that. Does a news organization have a right to break the law? Can a reporter rob a bank to prove that bank security is weak? My understanding of journalistic ethics is you don't break the law in pursuit of the news."

I think Mr. Murphy offers a simplistic, black and white picture when the issue is much more complex and full of gray.

I believe it's essential for journalists to respect the law, but respect doesn't mean blind obedience nor does it require absolute compliance.

There are times when individuals choose to test the limits of the law. Some citizens have chosen civil disobedience - including law breaking - to honor what they believe to be a higher ethical purpose. Some citizens have broken the law to protest what they believe to be unfair or discriminatory laws. Others violate the law to make their point on issues of social injustice and violations of civil rights. Others have chosen to break the law to challenge government policy.

Over the years, some news organizations have tested the legal line to reveal great system failure by government agencies and to prove significant wrongdoing by powerful people who victimize the vulnerable.

I'm not advocating law breaking as a routine course of action. A society's laws serve multiple essential purposes. But there may be those rare instances when someone believes his or her personal responsibility or professional duty trumps a particular law.

It's unclear to me, in this case, whether ABC NEWS violated a law or, if they did, whether they should be prosecuted.

ABC NEWS reports on its website that "On the night the shipment left the Los Angeles port, on Sept. 2, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security began a weeklong investigation of ABC NEWS personnel and others involved in the project, suggesting possible violations of felony smuggling laws."


The Washington Post story quotes Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) as saying, "I would urge that significant caution must be used by the federal government to ensure that legitimate reporting is not chilled. If my neighbor told me my barn was on fire, my first instinct would be to thank my neighbor and get some water for the fire ... Time and again, I find federal agencies devoting time and energy to attacking whoever put the spotlight on a government mistake."

Murphy: "My understanding of journalistic ethics is you don't break the law in pursuit of the news."

Journalists and news organizations have a professional duty to scrutinize our government and its ability to measure up, particularly on such weighty matters as national security. This scrutiny is part of the time-honored watchdog role of the press in a democracy. Journalists reveal important truths so that citizens are well-informed.

There are times when a rigorous watchdog may test the limits of the law in fulfilling the ethical responsibility to "hold the powerful accountable." To be sure, those decisions and actions are inherently subjective. Human beings are weighing competing values and loyalties.

Any decision to test the limits of a law should be made with great deliberation and full recognition of the consequences. One test is to apply threshold criteria, similar to those I've offered in the past for determining whether it is ethically justifiable to use deception to reveal truths.

Since each of the six criteria addresses a different threshold, you must fulfill all of these criteria to justify your actions.

The journalist's ethical duty to reveal important truths may justify the testing or breaking of a law:

When the information sought is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great "system failure" at the top levels, or the information must be necessary to prevent profound harm to individuals.

When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been vigorously examined and exhausted.

When the journalists involved are willing to fully disclose their methods and the reasons for such actions, including any violations of law.

When the journalists and their news organization employ outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of the time and funding needed to pursue the story fully and fairly.

When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision-making process on the ethical and legal issues and weighed the potential positive and negative consequences to all stakeholders.

When the journalists and their news organization are willing to accept and justify the consequences that can occur if they are charged with violating the law. They must consider consequences to themselves and to their profession, including public opinion and precedents from legal proceedings.

ABC News presented a compelling report on what they believe to be a serious weakness in the security at U.S. ports. The ABC journalists also must defend their modus operandi.