media industry is transforming at a very fast pace, especially within
the news media, where professional journalists now share the stage with
bloggers, citizens and social media users. It is crucial for
journalists, publishers, PR-agents and other professionals alike, to
develop an ethical code that provides the necessary guidelines for the
industry. Particularly due to the instantaneous publishing methods
online and the lack of professional gatekeepers, the media industry in
general has become more interactive and immediate.
there are attempts to set ethical guidelines for the industry, the
question of moral is one that is still raised regularly. Ethical
guidelines have been developed, mainly based on professional, objective
reporting for newspapers within the last century (Ward, 2019). These
existing codes of conduct seek to set relevant ethical standards and
guidelines for professionals within the media industry. However, ethics
cannot be identified as a simple set of rules determining what is right
or wrong. Ethics are moral maxims, which determine behaviour and action.
Discussions originate not only in relation to individuals taking
decisions but also the interpretation of principles and practices within
the media landscape.
There are a variety of ethical systems and theories existing codes of conduct draw from. Ethical theories are
classified based on whether they determine the good, the right or
virtues to be the most crucial aspect of ethics. Teleological theories
are “good-based”, virtue ethic theories take concern with the
development of an ethical character and the practical wisdom on what
decision is right or wrong in a complex situation while deontological
ethical systems are mainly concerned with the rights and duties of the
individual or the institution (Ward, 2019).
deontological system of Immanuel Kant as well as the teleological
theory of Jeremy Bentham are essential for the codes of conduct and the
media ethic framework.
Prussian German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) suggested that
the principle of morality is the standard of rationality (Johnson and
Cureton, 2016). According to him, it is possible to build a consistent
moral system through using reason. He referred to this the “Categorical
Imperative” which he intended to serve as the basis of all other moral
rules (Johnson and Cureton, 2016)). In comparison to the hypothetical
imperative which commands on the basis of the recipient having a
relevant desire, categorial imperatives are unconditionally. According to Kant, the Categorial Imperative is an unbiased, rationally necessary and definite principle (Johnson and Cureton, 2016) that an individual has to
adhere to, despite any personal predilections which might contradict
the action to take. It determines the moral duty of every human being.
According to the Philosopher, every moral decision is justified by the
Categorical Imperative which in consequence means that all immoral
actions are irrational.
first formulation of the Categorical Imperatives speaks to “act only on
that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should
become a universal law.” (Kant, 1785). If one is not willing for the
ethical maxim, they claim to follow to be equally applied to all of humanity, said maxim is not a legitimate moral rule. Moral rules according to Kant must be universalizable and must respect all human beings. His second formulation speaks to “act
so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of
another, always as an end and never merely as a means.” (BBC, 2014).
A Kant’s theory is duty-based,
which means that an action being right or wrong does not depends on
their consequences but on whether or not they fulfil the duty of a human
only valid reason according to the philosopher to do the right thing is
because of duty (BBC, 2014). Otherwise, one wold not have acted in a
morally good way. Duty-based ethics provide therefore a higher degree of
certainty to decision making as consequences cannot always be
predicted. However, Kantian ethics are absolutist. Since an action is
deemed right or wrong in itself and not by its consequences, it allows
acts that make the world a less good place.
Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher whose approach to ethics
in contrast to Kant, is a teleological one. His principle of
utilitarianism, determines right from wrong by focusing on the outcomes
of an action. It is a form of consequentialism. Bentham’s philosophy is as mentioned based on the principle of the utility as well as universal egoism and the identification of an individual’s interest with those of others (Postema, 2006).
to Bentham, what produces the greatest amount of happiness for the
greatest number of people is morally obligatory (Sweet, n.d.). Happiness
in this sense means the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain,
which according to Bentham are the primary motivators in human beings.
Based on Bentham’s principle of utility, an action is proven right or
wrong based on its enhancement or weakening of the happiness of a person
or group concerned by the act (UK Essays, 2018). Utilitarianism is the only moral framework that can justify military force and war (Crimmins, 2019). Actions like lying or killing, are wrong according to deontologist approaches like Kant’s, no matter the circumstances.
also provided one of the first theories on publicity. He claimed that
everyone has a right to information concerning their government actions (Zion, 2015). Bentham’s stand on publicity are linked today to transparency in the media landscape.
theory in a way is more simplistic and straight forward in comparison
to Bentham’s theory. The determination of one’s duty instead of an actions consequence seems to be a simpler task. While Kant’s deontological moral system provides a Journalist or media professional with a very clear direction based on said duties, there are obvious limitations. Based on a Journalists duty as for example, to portray a story as it happened and telling the truth and nothing but the truth, one could argue in regards to Kant’s theory, that the consequences of said reporting are not relevant to determine if the act of reporting on a story is right or wrong.
However, there are certainly cases where it is absolutely vital to
consider the consequences of one’s report. While in most cases,
journalists should aim to fulfil their duty, there are cases where it has to be a priority to consider the consequences while reporting. It is necessary to be sensitive and minimize harm in instances of tragedy (Duprey, 2010).
For instance, studies have proven, that a reporting on suicide increases the suicide rate for the consumers of said reports (WHO,
2008; Stack, 2003; McTernan, N. et al., 2018). While according to Kant
the duty of the Journalist to report thoroughly and truthfully would
deem the action morally correct, Bentham’s theory here demands to
consider the possible consequences. Within a deontological ethic
framework, it is not possible to declare an action immoral by its negative consequences.
One who commits to duty-based ethics is obliged to do the right thing,
even if it results in more harm than the wrong thing. It is necessary to
temper Kant’s deontological approach with that of Bentham for ethical
conflicts like this.
The advantages of Bentham’s principle of utility based moral system is that it allows for discussion of decisions, and enables decisions to be made in situations where there are different interests in conflict. Open debate has not only to be possible within the media landscape but
is vital to democracy. An additional concern in this context is the
fact that the media at this point in time has to take ethic discussions
to a global level. In the digital global age Kant’s approach is
problematic on its own, since his definition of a moral right and wrong might be called into question based on cultural differences in duties, values and maxims.
is however, indeed rather difficult to foresee the consequences of an
action at times since the circumstances in which the decision is taking
place may change and alter the outcome. This makes the question whether
an action will result in more pleasure or pain very complicated (UK
Essays, 2018), which is why Bentham’s approach alone is not sufficient as a guideline in the media ethical framework.
Both theories provide a guidance for ethical decision making (Trentkamp, 2009). According to Bentham as well as Kant, every human being is equal and both theories emphasise the respect for human beings as well as a principle of universalizability (Nordenstam,
2001). However, while Kant’s approach certainly seems to be the more
straightforward and easier to follow one, it has as previously mentioned
limitations. It is vital for professionals in the media landscape to
take Bentham’s theory into account and act not only based on duty but consider the consequences one’s action might have.
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