About the Book

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Preface to the 9th Edition

Media ethics has been traveling a rough road at the junction of theory and practice. Occasionally, textbooks will include an ethics chapter but will not integrate it with the workaday problems that follow. Principle and practice do not merge well in such endeavors, nor in our daily actions. The rush of events forces us to make ethical decisions by reflex more than by reflection, like drivers wheeling around potholes, mindful that a blowout sends them into a courtroom at one ditch and into public scorn at the other. Some books that focus on journalism ethics will be entirely case-driven for lack of theoretical substance. A few others, clearly, are books we respect and learn from. We hope this one sits on shelves next to them.

Two different mindsets are involved in press ethics; thus, fusion becomes difficult. Whereas the study of ethics requires deliberation, careful distinctions, and extended discussion, the news media tend to emphasize toughness and the ability to make quick decisions in the face of daily crises. Similarly, advertising and public relations professionals are expected to be competitive and enterprising, entertainment writers and producers are expected to value skepticism, confident independence, and hot blood. Therefore, for the teaching of ethics to be worthwhile, the critical capacity must emerge in which reasoning processes remain paramount. Yet executives of media firms value people of action, those who produce volumes of work in a high-pressure environment. If media ethics is to gain recognition, the gap between daily media practice and the serious consideration of ethics must be bridged creatively.

Like the previous editions, this revision attempts to integrate ethics and media situations through case studies and commentaries. Communication is a practice-oriented field: Reporters tend to work with episodes, typically pursuing one story after another as it happens; advertisers  ordinarily deal with accounts and design campaigns for specific products; public relations professionals advocate a specific cause; and actors and writers move from program to program. Because communication is case-oriented, media ethics would be uninteresting and abstract unless it addressed practical experiences. However, media ethics ought to be more than a description of professional challenges. Therefore, in this book we analyze cases and connect them with the ethical guidelines set forth in the Introduction. The reader will be prodded and stimulated to think ethically. Considering situations from a systematic framework advances our problem-solving capacity. That, in turn, prevents us from treating each case independently or having to reinvent the wheel. The commentaries pinpoint some critical issues and introduce enough salient material to aid in resolving the case responsibly. Much of this project’s inspiration came from Robert Veatch’s award-winning Case Studies in Medical Ethics, published in 1977 by Harvard University Press. Veatch mixed his commentaries, and we have followed suit—raising questions for further reflection in some, introducing relevant ethical theories in others, and pushing toward closure where doing so seems appropriate.

All the cases are taken from actual experiences or have been created to illustrate the actual ethical pressures faced by professionals. In order to protect anonymity and increase clarity, names and places have been changed in many of them. Though our adjustments do not make these cases timeless, they help to prevent them from becoming prematurely dated and shopworn. We attempted to find ongoing issues that occur often in ordinary media practice and did not select only exotic, once-in-a-lifetime encounters. In situations based on court records or in instances of historic significance where real names aid in the analysis, the cases have not been modified.

As the integration of theory and practice in ethics is important, so is the integration of news with other aspects of the information system. The four parts of this book reflect the four major media functions: reporting, persuading, representing, and entertaining. Because we want readers to do ethics rather than puzzle over their immediate experience, we have chosen a broad range of media situations. Many times when similar issues are encountered in several phases of the communication process, new insights can be gained and sharper perspectives result. Issues such as deception, economic temptation, and sensationalism, for example, are common in reporting, advertising, public relations, and entertainment. The issue of how violence is handled can be explored in reporting as well as in entertainment. Stereotyping is deep seated and pervasive in every form of public communication; cases dealing with this issue occur in all four parts. Moreover, the wider spectrum of this book allows specialists in one medium—television, newspapers, or magazines, for example—to investigate that medium across all its uses. Often practitioners of journalism, advertising, public relations, and entertainment are part of the same corporation and encounter other media areas indirectly in their work. The distinctions among them will blur as convergent technologies and integration of the industry accelerate.

The Potter Box is included in the Introduction (Ethical Foundations and Perspectives) as a technique for uncovering the important steps in moral reasoning. It is a model of social ethics, in harmony with our overall concern in this volume for social responsibility. It can be used for analyzing each case and reaching responsible conclusions. (Instructors who wish to use a video lecture to explain the Potter Box will find it on the book’s companion website at http://www.mediaethicsbook.com). This book is intended for use as a classroom text or in workshops for professionals. We are especially eager to have communication educators and practitioners read and think their way through this textbook on their own. Whether using this volume as a text or for personal reading, the Introduction can be employed flexibly. Under normal circumstances, we recommend that the Potter Box be studied first and the theoretical foundations given in the Introduction be considered thoroughly before readers proceed to the cases. However, readers can fruitfully start elsewhere in the book with a chapter of their own choosing and return later to the Introduction for the theoretical perspective.

Whether used in an instructional setting or not, the book has two primary goals. First, it seeks to develop analytical skills. Ethical appraisals are often disputed; further training and study can improve the debate and help weaken rationalizations. Advancement in media ethics requires more attention to evidence, more skill in valid argument, and more patience with complexity. Without explicit procedures, as Edward R. Murrow reportedly complained, “What is called thinking is often merely a rearranging of our prejudices.”

Second, this book aims to improve ethical awareness. Often the ethical dimension goes unrecognized. We are not content merely to exercise the intellect; we believe that the moral imagination must be stimulated until real human beings and their welfare become central. Surprising as it may seem, improving ethical awareness is in many ways more elusive than honing analytical skills. In stark cases, such as the Janet Cooke affair, we realize instantly the cheating and deception involved.1 Cleverly fabricating the story of an eight-year-old heroin addict for The Washington Post is outrageous and unacceptable by everyone’s standards. But often the ethical issues escape our notice. What about the stolen voice mail in Case 10? The legal questions about taping are relatively clear, but what is explicitly unethical about using this undercover strategy to report on immoral behavior? Or naming a shoplifter, printing photographs of grieving parents whose children just died in a fire, writing about the sexual escapades of a senator, exposing a prominent right-to-lifer concealing an abortion, or revealing secret information about government policy that contradicts public statements? The ethical issues here are not always self-evident; thus, actual and hypothetical cases become a primary tool for firing up the moral imagination.

Improving analytical skills and raising moral sensitivity are lifelong endeavors that involve many facets of human behavior. Studied conscientiously, the terms, arguments, and principles introduced in these chapters may also improve the quality of discourse in the larger arena of applied ethics. We trust that using the Potter Box model for the seventy-eight cases in this volume will aid in building a conceptual apparatus that facilitates the growth of media ethics over time.

We are fully aware of the criticism from various areas of radical social science that ethics is a euphemism for playing mental games while the status quo remains intact. That criticism warrants more discussion than this Preface permits, but it should be noted that we find this charge too indiscriminate. Much of the current work in professional ethics is largely a matter of semantics and isolated incidents, but this volume does not belong to that class. The social ethics we advocate challenges the organizational structures. Many of the commentaries—and even entire chapters—probe directly into significant institutional issues. Certainly, that is the cumulative effect also. Reading the volume through in its entirety brings into focus substantive questions about economics, management and bureaucracy, allocation of resources, the press’s raison d’être, and distributive justice. We have employed the case-and-commentary format for its instructional benefits. It allows us to separate issues into their understandable dimensions without slipping into small problems of no consequence on the one hand, yet not encouraging a complete dissolution of the democratic order on the other.

We recognize also that today’s crusading relativism is a formidable challenge to such efforts. Moral commitments are crumbling beneath our feet. Cultural diversity has hoodwinked us into ethical relativity. Divine-command theories and metaphysical foundations for norms are problematic in a secular age on the far side of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. Many academics believe truth claims are impossible after Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. In a world of sliding signifiers and normlessness, ethical principles seem to carry little resonance. Though this textbook is not an appropriate place for coming to grips with the complexities of relativism, we believe that the idea of normative principles can be successfully defended in contemporary terms. For example, Chapter 6 of Good News: Social Ethics and the Press, by Clifford Christians, John Ferré, and Mark Fackler (Oxford University Press, 1993) develops such a defense. Three other books construct normative models also: Edmund Lambeth’s Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession (Indiana University Press, 2nd ed., 1992), John C. Merrill’s Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); and Patrick Plaisance, Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009). Deni Elliott has demonstrated in empirical terms that, without shared values, the practice of everyday journalism is impossible. In other words, although reporters and editors are pluralists, they are not relativists.2

Serious students will recognize that we maintain the traditional distinction between ethics and morality. Ethics we understand as the liberal arts discipline that appraises voluntary human conduct insofar as it can be judged right or wrong in reference to determinative principles. The original meaning of ethos (Greek) was “sent,” “haunt,” “abode,” “accustomed dwelling place,” that is, the place from which we start out, the “home base.” From ethos is derived ethikos, meaning “of or for morals.” In the Greek philosophical tradition, this word came to stand for the systematic study of the principles that ought to underlie behavior.

On the other hand, morality is of Latin origin. The Latin noun mos (pl. mores) and the adjective moralis signify a way, manner, or customary behavior. The Romans had no word that is the exact equivalent of Greek ethos. Unlike the Greeks, they paid more attention to the inner disposition, the hidden roots of the conduct, the basic principles of behavior, than they did to its external pattern. This perspective is in accord with the Roman genius for order, arrangement, and organization and with its generally unphilosophical bent of mind. The Romans looked to the outside more than to the inside. The Latin mores has come into the English language without modification (meaning “folkways, how people behave”). However, in English usage, the ethics of a people are not the same as their morality. Morality refers to practice and ethics to a basic system of principles.

We incurred many debts while preparing this volume. The McCormick Foundation generously supported our original research into ethical dilemmas among media professionals; many of the cases and the questions surrounding them emerged from this research. Ralph Potter encouraged our adaptation of his social ethics model. Louis Hodges wrote the initial draft for the commentary in Case 21. Eve Munson wrote the initial draft for Case 4 and gathered material for several more. Paul and Stephanie Christians wrote Cases 3, 8, 9, 15, and 18, and updated others; their research was invaluable. Jackie Ayrault gathered information for many of the advertising cases. Enbar Toledano gathered information and was the primary author of Cases 27, 28, 29,s and 34. Their contributions are very much appreciated. Work on Part 4 was greatly helped by ideas and words from Sam Bultman, Caleb Kuntz, Eric Beach, and Tim Kertland. Case 68 was written by Christopher Smit and Lisa Kosinsky, Case 72 by Peggy Goetz, and Case 78 by Ted Fackler. Professor Haydar Badawi Sadig, now teaching in Saudi Arabia, read and advised on Case 73. Jay Van Hook and John Ferré edited the Introduction along with other chapters. Diane Weddington recommended the Potter Box as the organizing idea and wrote the original draft applying it to communications. Several teachers, students, and professionals who used the earlier editions provided worthwhile suggestions which we have incorporated. The following individuals reviewed the manuscript and provided helpful suggestions:

Bonnie Brennen, Marquette University
Elizabeth K. Hansen, Eastern Kentucky University
Patricia T. Whalen, DePaul University

The authors also thank the following Spring Arbor University students enrolled in the Masters of Communication program who worked as research assistants on the companion website: Alyse Lehrke, Annette Ford, Chad Nelson, Vanessa Denha-Garmo, and Benjamin Wahrman. Allison Wong, a graduate of Santa Clara University, also served as a research assistant on the companion website. Special Thanks to Jason Thiede for his help in migrating the website’s content to a new server, updating the design, and serving as Webmaster during a critical period early on in the project. Terri Joughin Reynolds graciously assisted with the content migration process in a timely and efficient manner. Finally, special thanks to John Muether, library director at Reformed Theological Seminary, for his work on the index.

We absolve these friends of all responsibility for the weaknesses that remain.

Clifford G. Christians
Mark Fackler
Kathy Brittain Richardson
Peggy J. Kreshel
Robert H. Woods, Jr.


1. For a thoughtful analysis of this historic case, see Lewis H. Lapham, “Gilding the News,” Harper’s, July 1981, 31–39.

2. Deni Elliott, “All Is Not Relative: Essential Shared Values and the Press,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 3:1 (1988): 28–32.