[PDF Notes] 615 Words Essay on the Ethics of Journalism

The virtuous journalist is one who has respect for, and tries to live by, the cardinal virtues which Plato discusses in ‘The Republic

(i) Wisdom, which gives direction to the moral life and is the rational, intellectual base for any system of ethics. Wisdom is part natural and part acquired, combining knowledge and native abilities; it largely comes from maturing of life experience, from contemplation, reading, conversing and study.

(ii) Courage, which keeps one constantly pursuing his goal which wisdom has helped him set for himself. Courage is needed to help the journalist resist the many temptations which would stray him away from the path which wisdom shows.

(iii) Temperance, the virtue that demands reasonable modera­tion or a blending of the domination of reason with other tendencies of human nature. It is this Virtue, giving harmony and proportion to moral life, which helps ns avoid fanaticism in pursuit of any goal.

(iv) Justice, as distinguished from the other cardinal virtues in that it refers more specifically to man’s social relations. Justice involves considering a man’s “deservingness”; each man must be considered but this does not mean that each man has to be treated like every other-for example, justice would not require that every person elected to a city, state or national office receive equal attention on television or the same amount of space in a newspaper. Equal treatment simply does not satisfy deservingness- does not imply “just” coverage.

(v) Truth, the pursuit of truth by the journalist surely partakes wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

Thus at the base of journalistic ethics is an allegiance to truth. It is the authenticity of the information contained in the story that is the journalist’s chief ethical concern. It is hard to verify truth if the source’s name is hidden from the public. This allegiance to truth, not to some person (source) who reveals information, is what is important.

Too often those who reveal information and elicit the journalist’s promise not to identify them have motives other than a desire to let the truth come out. Virtue in journalism, believes John Whale, has to do with getting as much truth as possible into the story-and, of course, the source of the informa­tion is part of the “truth” of the story.

The ethics of collective altruism, has been, expressed generally in terms of the utilitarian principle that good conduct is that which results in the greatest good to the greatest number. There are two practical problems with this theory: (1) the problem determining what is really good for most people, and (2) the problem posed by equating “good” with majority opinion or action.

The journalist, for instance, in deciding whether or not to present a story, has no sound way of knowing which action will result in the greatest good to the greatest number of people. He can only guess-and hope. The second problem above leads the journalist to a kind of “give them what they want” ethical stance, abdicating personal commitment.

For Kant, for example, virtue has nothing to do with pleasure or with any other “consequences”. Bertrand Russell has written of Kant: Kant was never tired of pouring scorn on the view that the good consists of pleasure, or of anything else except virtue. And virtue consists in accepting what the moral law enjoins.

A right action done from any other motive cannot count as virtuous. If you are kind to your brother because you are fond of him, you have no merit; but if you can hardly stand him and are nevertheless kind to him because the moral law says you should be, then you are the sort of person that Kant thinks you ought to be.

The Journalistic Situationist

There are a good number of journalists who believe that they should tell the truth as a basic principle, or that they should not distort their story, but who will, after due consideration of the situation conclude that it is all right to distort this particular story, or even to lie.

Do the circumstances in such cases warrant a departure from basic-generally held-moral guidelines: this is the rational question which always confronts a situationist. He is one, then, who takes special situations into consideration in making his ethical decisions; he is a relativist to be sure, but a rational relativist, one who thinks before applying the basic ethical rules.

Journalists like to point out Machiavellianism in others (especially among politicians), but they themselves very often operate under this variant of situation ethics. They usually contend they believe in absolutes (such as giving their guidance on all the pertinent facts or not changing or distorting quotes from a source), yet they depart from these principles when they think that “in this special case” it is reasonable to do so.

They normally talk about their belief in “letting the people know” but they determine innumerable exceptions to this principle-times when they will not (because of the circumstances of the special situation) let the people know.

Very little has been written about journalistic ethics beyond certain repetitious phrases appearing in “codes” and “creeds” designed largely for framing and hanging as wall trappings. Perhaps one reason for this is that most editors, publishers, news directors and other journalists simply write the whole subject of ethics as “relative”, giving little or no importance to absolute or universal journalistic principles.

A newspaper stalwart Merrill, put it succinctly recently when he said that he looked upon ethics as “just the indivi­dual journalist’s way of doing things”. Certainly a free journalist has the right to consider ethics in this way, but such a relativistic concept relegates ethics to a kind of “nothingness limbo” where anything any journalist does can be considered ethical. Or, said in another way, what one journalist does can be considered just as ethical as what any other journalist does.

If we throw out absolute theories of ethics (exemplified by Kant), then a discussion of morality becomes merely a discussion of preferences, arbitrary choices, detached judgements-none of which establishes obligations.

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