Media Ethics

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Nathan Johnston
Dr. Dwight Teeter
JEM 400
April 25, 2012
Ethics and Reporting
During the Constitutional Convention of the newly succeed and forming United States of America, many concerns were raised about preventing future restriction and impediment of rights similar to what the citizens’ of the British Crown had experience prior to the Revolutionary War. One of these main concerns stemmed from a lack of a free press, and the inability to look into various parts of society (especially the government for the purposes the convention) and attain whether or not those parts of society were acting in a way consistent with societal norms, ethical codes, and legal obligations. As a result, the freedom of the press clause was added to the Bill Rights proposed by James Madison.

The government requirement to not abridge the freedom of the press exists to allow members of the press to serve as a watchdog for society. Journalists and reporters then and now are charged with the responsibility to investigate, verify, and inform the public of the things happening around them, and to do so for the betterment of society at large.

Though the First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press, that clause does not give journalists free license to act outside of the law, legal repercussions, and, most importantly, the ethical standards that bind us as rational thinkers. Elliot Cohen and Deni Elliot, authors of Journalism Ethics, write, “[u]ndercover investigation falls more squarely into the ethical realm than into the legal realm.” This idea applies not only to the actions of undercover investigators, but more broadly to the realm of journalism as a whole, and how reporters and editors should act when dealing with newsworthy material.

First, we must address what ethics are. “Simply stated, ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find themselves-as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople, teachers, professionals, and so on,” writes Manuel Velasquez, Philosophy Professor at Santa Clara University. The word ought refers to a natural obligation, something that compels us to act in one way (the “right” way) over another (the “wrong” way).

As ethics refers to a judgment on the part of the actor as to what is right or wrong, we must have some framework to address whether or not a decision is ethical. Velasquez lays out a clear guideline for how we should act when addressing ethics. First, we must recognize the ethical issue, potential harms, legality, and efficiency. Second, we must gather all relevant facts about a situation before making a decision. Third, we must evaluate ethical principles (specifically the utilitarian approach, rights approach, justice approach, common good approach, and virtue based approach), and choose the most appropriate (for the journalism world it is usually utilitarian based). Fourth, we must make a decision and test it. Finally, we must act and reflect on the outcome out of our decision.

Ethics apply to all people, at all times. As a result, to help guide decision makers, organizations like the Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) have come up with codes of ethics to guide behavior. These codes of ethics mirror the guidelines set forth by Velasquez, and show that journalists too must work within the framework of ethical action. With the important watchdog task entrusted to journalists, it is of the utmost that they act ethically in all situations to inform and protect the public. This responsibility requires that they evaluate their behavior from an ethical and legal standpoint, including taking into the account the harm and impacts that their work may have. With an understanding of ethics, and an ethical framework to apply to situations we can now move forward with addressing situations that journalists may encounter....
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