Ethics and Power in Journalism

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What Roles Do Ethics and Power Play in Journalism?

For the most part, journalists have power that can hurt, instead of help citizen autonomy. The ways journalists treat their subjects and sources have generated much concern. The ethics of these two endeavors share much in common, because both use people in various ways to reach each others goals. The well-developed guidelines in research designed to protect research participants' autonomy, to guard against needless deception, and to recognize the special needs of vulnerable research participants have direct application to journalism. Christopher Meyers argues that the news media are ethically constrained by procedure, resulting in journalists asserting power inappropriately at the individual level, and unwillingly giving up moral authority institutionally and globally. In this paper I will discuss how journalists use power and the role that ethics plays in journalism.

In particular, journalists have power at three levels: the micro level, as in relationships between reporters and news subjects or sources; the institutional or professional level, as in media impact on regional political or cultural agendas; and the social level, as in media contribution to establishing and maintaining ideology. Power by definition is the ability to implement one's agenda, often, though not always, by successfully manipulating others. The ability to implement one's agenda is seen through power, and directly linked to the promotion of autonomy; powerful agents have greater opportunity to act upon those choices they find important to the development of character. However, power can also be constructed to restrict others' similar choices; that is, power can be used to coerce or constrain, as well as to withhold information vital to autonomous decision making. Power can also certainly be wielded to enhance others' well being or to severely damage it; one can, obviously, use position and authority to provide others with goods or to cause them great harm.

Journalistic relationships can have mutual benefit, the journalist wants a good story and the subject or source wants to be presented in a good way or have her ideas widely and accurately discussed. But, such benefit is not essential to the interaction. Rather, the reality is closer to Ralph Barney's comprehensive view that, "Every interview is a power struggle." The journalistic relationship seems fundamentally to be at least grounded in each party's desire to satisfy his or her respective self-interest, but also being more or less wary of the other. Each may wish to remain in the other's good graces and may even care about the other's well being, but neither such goal is fundamental to the relationship, as it is in effective teaching, health care, ministry, and legal assistance. Agenda control clearly rests in the hands of the journalist. The journalist decides what stories to cover, how to cover them, how to characterize the various people and ideas. Although some norms dictate appropriate choices here, they are institutional norms, chosen by journalists, not by subjects and sources. Thus, determining what is newsworthy, let alone how it will be portrayed, lies in the hands of the journalist. Most important, is who controls the outcome. Journalists hold near complete control over what happens to a story: They edit it at their discretion, therefore giving it their own spin. Their editors or producers determine whether it will run and with what kind of play. Of course, it is also their printing press or television station. The cliché is now treated as a joke, but it is accurately revealing of who holds the power in these relationships. David Kennamer feels that the ethical decisions required of media professionals often must be made with little time for reflection or discussion, under the pressures of deadlines, competing demands, and profit maximization. Given these circumstances, discussions of ethics in mass media often...
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