Trying to explain media ethics in a blog entry is like trying to run a marathon at the bottom of the sea on single breath of air. The pressure is immense, the resistance difficult to fight against and before you get going you’re out of air.

In a nutshell, ethics seeks to answer questions about morality, how moral decisions should be determined, how moral outcome can be achieved in specific situations, how moral agency develops and what moral values people actually abide by. While morals frame our point of reference in the decision-making process ethics defines the behaviors we should strive to meet and provides baselines for judgment of our actions. Ethics is the inner sense of duty that compels us to behave in certain ways; it is what motivates an individual to consistently chose behaviors and rationalize actions and outcomes.

Media ethics is the standard to which anyone who legally publishes or broadcasts information is expected to conform. The problem is that for one to believe that a singular ethical standard for media exists, and can be enforced in some shape or form, one must believe that all media prescribes to the same moral theory or normative ethical standard. The expectation is that all individuals who operate under the auspices of mass media share the same point of reference. The reality is that the mass media does not operate as a singular entity but is made up of a series of entities that have their own unique culture and ethical expectations. The clash of corporate cultures against the accepted ethical standards for media causes an incongruity in behaviors that generate negative results and contribute to the downfall of the mass media’s reputation amongst consumers. But why don’t consumers think mass media is honest or ethical?

The core tenet for many of these journalistic ethic standards is the seeking and discovery of truth. Therein lies the greatest weakness of these idealistic standards. Truth is not definite and definable at first glance. What may be considered true to one individual may not be considered true to another. With the deficiency of facts, or the same results from a repeatable methodology, a story is reported and a judgment made on hearsay. The compilation and repetition of opinion does not define truth. Truth may only be discovered with the passage of time and when all information can be weighed and the result of actions judged. Considering the pressures to deliver information in a 24-hour news cycle the potential for truth to slide into any one story is limited.

The truth suffers when fuzzy and destructive images over-power society’s need to intelligently discuss at length critical issues. The sensational and titillating have replaced the relevant and researched, and with it rhetorical engagement has been rendered an anachronism. How information is packaged becomes more important than the quality or accuracy of the content. News is as much staged as it is produced. The popularity and coverage of Sarah Palin is indicative of the failures of media to apply any methodology of research and any semblance of critical thought to the information they find. It is more important to get her smiling face and folksy euphemisms on the air, providing a controversial personality in an attractive package for viewers to eat up.

The effort to find an ethical truth is beyond what the mass media currently passes for information. Opinion has become the bedrock of journalism, or what is being passed off as journalism to the corporate owned media outlets. The problem with opinion is that it is not news and it is not truth. When speaking on the subject of truth Immanuel Kant outlined that opinion is consciously insufficient judgment, subjectively as well as objectively. He continued on to say that to know truth required knowledge and that knowledge is both subjectively and objectively sufficient to achieve truth. The reader must obtain knowledge to find truth, and knowledge can only be attained through understanding of the subject matter rather than the appearance of the subject matter. While opinion may provide perspective it does not represent truth.

Opinion has killed the dream of an ethical standard in the mass media. Because of the First Amendment it is difficult to censor opinion, and because opinion is subjective, it is hard to discredit. Opinion allows for a certain fluidity with the facts that makes truth difficult to distill. Mass media has moved toward more opinion, regardless of the basis for such opinion, because miscarriages of truth are wildly popular and profitable. The failures of corporate owned mass media outlets to abide by a standardized series of ethical principles and enforce those on their affiliates and subsidiaries have caused a collapse of their credibility with consumers. Because mass entertainment is now indiscriminately fused with news, the very term media ethics is misleading and the ambition of industry wide morality a utopian fantasy.

When truth is eliminated from the equation, ethics, in relation to media, becomes a discussion of group beliefs and organizational cultural development. Thanks to deregulation efforts by Presidents Reagan and Clinton mass media has fallen under the control by six mega-corporations. Out of these corporate entities the ethical standard is developed and enforced, so when speaking of media ethics we must consider not the individual’s response to a moral dilemma, but understand what the accepted organizational response may be. The underlying assumptions, espoused beliefs and values of the organization will ultimately frame the ethical standard for employees to follow and act as a singular entity. The actions of the employees are to further corporate interests and attain strategic goals. Because of this it would be imprudent to presuppose anything other than a predominance of self-interest motivating most people [organizations] most of the time. Individuals will dispense of their individuality in favor of the group ideal and people will protect that which they perceive affords them the most security.

Establishment of a media ethic then boils down to the ultimate organizational expectation more than the individual ethic and how the individual chooses to align with the group norm as defined by its leaders. The ethic is then dictated to the individuals (employees) in an effort to support the corporate objectives. Clearly specified strategic goals are not only crucial to the success of the organization, but the ongoing motivation of the employees, their creative freedom and ability to comply with ethical standards. Kohlbergian theory indicates that group morality develops from shared values and beliefs and only the individual’s ability to comprehend their place in society allows these morals to be understood. If the anticipated results are in conflict with the underlying cultural assumptions of those applying the ethical standard it will make adoption unlikely and the standard impossible to enforce. Development of an ethical standard requires the formal documentation of what an entity identifies as the core beliefs and philosophies which guide its actions. Media organizations are expected to observe many ethical frameworks. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) all publish highly regarded ethical standards for professionals to follow. They define the behaviors that all member professionals should adhere to in the execution of their duties. Unfortunately all of these professional frameworks present standards contradictory to the behaviors possible in a bottom line oriented enterprise where truth is subjugate to the almighty dollar.

If there was a singular ethical standard observed by mass media today it would be best described as Machiavellian. The behaviors displayed by media outlets are all over the ethical road map but almost always fall back to the most basic of principles from The Prince; achieve your goal by all or any means and deal with the consequences later. The press, like Machiavelli, recognizes the power of information control and the establishment of influence through information access. The corporate owned mass media has become partners with the body politick in an effort to affirm this power. Authoritarian leaders and power brokers agree to share this power because they require access to the sphere of influence the media can provide. The mass media, operating under the direction of their corporate directors, stem the flow of communication of any information that could undermine the confidence of the existing regime or alter societal expectations and standards. The standard that is evolving is not one of measuring whether an action is moral or immoral, but whether the action is effective or ineffective. From that outcome develops the new ethic.

For journalists this ethical standard is difficult to wrestle with. They are aware of the professional standards that they are expected to uphold, but their paycheck is dependent on adherence to the corporate standard. This forces the journalist to comprehend a series of stratified ethical standards and weight their decisions against all standards. In the end it is easier to allow the corporate masters tell them how to think and what is ethical.

The most damning aspect of the ethical stratification has been the impact on democracy itself. Robert McChesney, professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said, “The measure of a media system in political terms is not whether it creates a viable democratic society but whether the broader social and economic situation is recognized and challenges antidemocratic pressures and tendencies or reinforces them.” In recent memory the media was an active agent of muzzling any dissenting voice post-9/11 and during the lead up to the Iraq war and the Republicans cast anyone who disagreed with their position as being unpatriotic. The media response was to march along side in lock step. If a party in power can outlaw the opposition press it can effectively terminate its opposition.

Thomas Jefferson saw freedom of the press as the foundation of popular democracy and as protection against elite rule. Jefferson is often quoted for a passage from a letter he wrote about the press and its function in our democracy. He wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people the very first object should be kept that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to choose the latter”. Ultimately the most important portion of Jefferson’s quote was left on the editor’s floor. He continued, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them”. Jefferson recognized that a democracy without free access to information, and the critical thinking skills to properly distill truth, was in actuality an illiberal democracy boarding on tyranny.

The media doesn’t necessarily tell you what to think but they will tell you what to think about and present many different ways to think about it. The sources of expert opinion tell more about the story than the reported information itself. Experts from the Washington Think Tank community are now the most cited source of information for reporters because these sources are easily accessible and wield political clout. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, and the Cato Institute are regular contributors for all forms of media. Even the most liberal of entities, National Public Radio (NPR), subscribes to these enterprises now. The dollars spent to establish to establish these entities have gone a long way to promoting a specific ideology through the press. Jefferson’s concept of the media safeguarding the best interest of the people has been dashed by a corporate ownership predisposition to a political agenda. Factual accuracy and ethical reporting has been lost in a storm of sensationalism and unbridled partisan rhetoric.

The profit driven news agencies are now selling a product rather than providing factual information for definition of the truth. These corporate interests tend to focus on providing more of what the viewer wants rather than challenging their preconceptions with the facts on an issue. Media outlets tend to distort information to align with their target market’s prior beliefs distorting the facts and preventing the distillation of truth. This belief surpasses just those outlets that do not follow a true journalism ethical standard. Media outlets concerned about a reputation for accuracy will be reluctant to report evidence incongruent with prior beliefs of the consumer, even if they believe the evidence to be true. This practice of modeling a story to conform to expectations of the viewer becomes the new standard for all journalists to follow simply because the ethical standards of journalism were placed at odds with that of the corporate culture and the results were predictable; pay-check became more important than gut check.

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