Breit argues “Ethics affect how people view right and wrong, good and bad, what is responsible and the effectiveness of accountability”. Why can ethics be problematic in media and communication industries and what solutions are viable?
Ethics is a multi-dimensional concept which is difficult to define. One definition put forward by Breit (2007, p. 308) emphasises ethics as ‘the process of decision-making aimed at making the right choices’ and how ‘people view right and wrong’. Despite the myriad of theories that have been postulated throughout history, ethics in media and communication industries continues to come under scrutiny since the notion of converging ethics into communication industries is essentially an oxymoron. This is because the act of public persuasion can be perceived as inherently unethical and it is therefore impossible to have ‘ethical communication’ (Demetrious, 2010). In order to counteract this discrepancy, a range of theories have been developed that can help media and communication practitioners develop ethical competencies, without compromising their duty toward their occupation and workplace.
Why are ethics important?
Most public communicators, who deal with powerful technology that reach mass audiences, are confronted with ethical decision making as an implicit part of their professional practice (Demetrious, 2010). Therefore, it is essentially important to pay attention to ethics because the mass media has the potential to affect and influence copious amounts of people.
How can ethics be problematic?
Furthermore, many media and communication industries are not simply neutral purveyors of information. The information these industries release is often subjective and biased, and so may not necessarily reflect the thoughts and opinions of the wider community. Hence, media and communication industries are often, creators and shapers of culture and are institutionalized agents of acculturation. Thus, if the information is unethical, it can have a considerable influence on the adoption of the behavior patterns of the surrounding culture, whether the initial source came from a journalist, public relations practitioner or a media release (Valerie, 2004).
Here Deetz (1990) draws heavily upon how unethical communication is aroused in a communications workplace environment. Deetz puts forward that ethical issues in the workplace are not the result of interpersonal ethics but instead are a failure to recognise systemic abuses that can occur behind the veil of “ethical”, democratic communication. In other words, he positions that unethical communication is not the consequence of an individual’s moves or even intentions but how the powerful and influential communication industry engage persons and groups. Unethical communication often occurs when the entire workplace embrace the workplace situation they find themselves in. The remoteness between the wider public and the media industry within communicative contexts and the public’s inability to influence media industries creates power imbalance within these two groups. Consequently those with the power in the large industries can maintain dominant positions and represent their own interests at the expense of those not allowed equal voice in the discourse, those being the public. This represents an inequitable distribution of power in communication (Harris 2010).
A Case Study of Problematic Ethics
The James Hardie Industries case study demonstrates a raft of complex legal and ethical issues surrounding the widespread health crisis linked to the production of asbestos in Australia several years ago. Moreover, it exposes the conceptual weakness in theories of public communication that present almost irresolvable issues for practitioners that seek to practice ethical communication (Demetrious, 2010).
James Hardie demonstrated that when public communication, or in this case ‘public relations’, is used unethically,...