Doing Ethics in Media

For better or worse, media have power. Media help decide what society thinks about and, sometimes, what and how to think. This means that the hundreds of thousands of people working in traditional and newer forms of media—whether they inform and/or persuade and/or entertain—play significant roles in contemporary life. Moral media are a foundation for any society that expects its citizens to be informed and its consumers to be sharp. Moral media require their practitioners to think about ethics and act morally.

Most media practitioners take ethics seriously, even when their decisions are misunderstood or seemingly fall short of the best outcome. As in other enterprises, media workers’ desire to do the right thing can be complicated by pressures that include the need to make money, forces at work in and out of the organization they represent, the power they have to make decisions, and the lack of time and information needed to fully work through a decision.

Practitioners who make defensible decisions know those decisions will not always be popular in an increasingly polarized world. When faced with oft-conflicting goals of either doing what is right or being popular, ethical media practitioners choose the high road. They “do ethics.” Learning to do ethics is neither easy nor simple, but making the effort will prove helpful wherever your career takes you. If you plan a media career, you need a systematic understanding of how to make ethical decisions given the industry’s unique pressures. If you work outside of media, you need an understanding of how media work in order to become a more sophisticated consumer of the media in your life, and you need a systematic approach to ethics that works in all walks of life.

On one hand, media ethics investigates academic and abstract concepts that have long intrigued people in and out of the media business, including economists, historians, philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and theologians. You may find their arguments fascinating.

On the other hand, you may think they belabor points as they count angels dancing on pinheads. You live in the real world. But when you scratch beneath the surface, you see how the theories apply to controversial current events and wonder what you would do if you faced those situations. Moreover, you likely have faced ethical questions that pop up in internships and jobs in and out of student media. You recognize that media practitioners may make the decisions on their own or within an organization, whether working at the bottom of an organization’s food chain or serving as its leader. Your decisions may mean little—or could affect untold numbers stakeholders, including people you’ve never met. Your decisions may be noticed by few—or swirl beyond your control and wildest imagination into something talked about and second-guessed worldwide. will be “doing ethics” while being pushed and pulled by a variety of moral and pragmatic concerns. One hallmark of a professional is the ability to connect classical theory with current practice.

“Doing ethics” starts with thinking about ethics, a branch of moral philosophy or philosophical thinking that considers morality, moral problems, and moral judgments. Studying ethics means being challenged to systematically apply the wisdom of the ages. When you thoughtfully use these theories of moral philosophy to resolve real-world moral dilemmas, you engage in applied, practical ethics. Being thoughtfully consistent when making ethical decisions is the goal—being consistent in moral decisions over time, from case to case, from rule to rule, from person to person. The insights for one situation have broad, general application to other dilemmas on other days. They help us learn to think for ourselves and to make the tough calls—to reach moral autonomy, even in workplaces that may devalue independent decision making. When we get it right, we are “doing ethics.”