Media Ethics in a South African Context

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“It is often said that the media exist to inform, educate and entertain. Sometimes, however, the informing and educating functions are subordinated to the entertainment function. It often seems to be the case that what is salacious, sensational or horrific is judged to be entertaining and therefore preferable to a simple statement of facts. Can such colouring of the facts be justified?” Wilfrid McGreal and Bernard Hoose

The branch of philosophy related to human behaviour, more specifically focussing on what is morally acceptable or morally unacceptable, is a discipline better known as media ethics. In essence, media ethics provides guidelines to media workers which help and guide them to make morally acceptable decisions (Oosthuizen 2002:12).


As a philosophical discipline, ethics fundamentally can be split into theoretical, and practical ethics. Theoretical ethics focuses on questions about ethical values' origins, justification and evaluation – more specifically meta-ethics and normative ethics and practical ethics focuses on their application to specific issues. Focussing more specifically on theoretical ethics, meta-ethics wants to determine what moral concepts mean and whether moral statements are justifiable while normative ethics focuses on actual ethical conduct and the moral principles that underlie the principles and then they use these principles in specific situations to determine which actions are moral and immoral (Dixon 2006).


According to Merrill and Odell (1983), meta-ethics focuses on analysing and evaluating ethical theories. In other words, meta-ethics attempts to determine the meaning of moral concepts and phrases; whether or not these phases are given moral, immoral or logical justification; and how they are classified. This broad classification of meta-ethical theories, is made up of teleological ethics and deontological ethics. Teleological ethics are concerned with the adequacy of an action measured in terms of its consequence (Oosthuizen 2002:12), while deontological ethics, in a meta-ethical sense, are concerned with moral justification, the nature of moral properties and the meaning and logic of moral statements. Therefore, a deontological ethic may deny that the good actually takes priority over what is essentially right in some instances (Johnson 2006). Teleology and deontology feature in a complied set of typologies, which provide a broad overview of the theoretical classification and conceptualisation of ethics, developed by Lowenstein and Merrill (1990).

Ethical absolutists
The believe that there is a collective ethical code that applies to each and every one of us – regardless of time, place or circumstance. This viewpoint is similar to that of the teleological theorists, where they believe that only after outcomes have be recorded, can incorrectness or accuracy be determined. This action is known as the consequential ethical theory (Oosthuizen 2002:13).

Ethical objectivists
Their position is almost identical to the Ethical absolutists, but claim that the collective ethical code is both objectively constructed and rational.

Ethical relativists
Ethical relativists oppose the positions of the absolutists and objectivists, in that they believe that morality connects more closely with emotion. Their position is considered to be subjective, where good and bad actions are related to preference and vary from person to person. Attitudinal theories

Like the ethical relativists, attitudinal theorists believe that right and wrong depend on the subjectiveness of attitude or the nature of the action is question.

Normative ethics

As Oosthuizen (2002) explains, normative ethics encompass the conduct, expectations and principles of people and organisation in the society in which we live. These expectations have grown from various societies’ and their deep-seated values with their political...
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