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Preface to the 10th Edition

Worldwide, people think about doing the right thing.  From soccer players to political strategists, doing the right thing weighs against other human motivations:  winning at all costs, getting what we want, reducing stress, sometimes plain survival.

We take it as common sense that editors, advertising professionals, public relations pros, and folks with the varied skills of movie making and screen-game playing…they too think about doing the right thing.  In making media, the right thing sometimes collides with concerns about market share, profit, audience, and just getting along in the odd subcultures of Hollywood and Fifth Avenue.  Still, doing the right thing is never far from a professional’s line of sight.

Few media professionals receive accolades from peers for something so mundane as “doing the right thing,” but that impulse still survives all the non-rewards our complex industries can withhold, and all the pettiness and piety that can paint a person who’s known for right-thing doing.

Sometimes, we strongly suspect, people who err (that’s all of us) wish they would have done the right thing.  If only their moral compass had been fixed on North, their careers would not have gone South.  Doing wrong is so instantly publicized that there’s little chance of escaping public humiliation for moral slippage. The “fallen” among us are reminders that the race to the top, or fame and fortune, or the homage of the Academy, are feint moments of fading grandeur when you’re caught doing moral nonsense.  So we wonder, given all the many claims to rightness, what right really is.  This book is written to address that question.

But wait.  Not everyone assigned to read and use this book intends to throw his or her life into media production.   Everyone, however, in your class and in every single other class are heavy media users and buyers, with emphasis on heavy.  You say No?  Don’t even think about it.  You could not go cold-turkey from media if free tuition were dangled before you.  This book on media ethics – doing the right thing in news, advertising, public relations, and entertainment programming – is for everyone, minus some very few souls who still imagine “mouse” means varmint.

Doing the right thing, as Media Ethics presents it, is a discipline to be learned and practiced.  We get better at it as we learn to spot the red lights, then understanding the stakes and stakeholders, apply moral principles toward justifiable solutions.  By “justifiable” we mean solutions that can be presented in public as viable, reasonable, fair, honorable, and just. The best descriptor is “good.”  We want to find the communicative good and do it.  We want media industries to understand their telos and fulfill it. We want the public to grow more capable of living with a sense of communicative progress and communal support.  We celebrate the language of friendship and trust.  We want unnecessary violence contained, and necessary violence to be measured and publicly accountable.  Peace and trust being preferable to deception and warfare, we want media to contribute to public shalom, community salaam, the phileo which inspired the naming of America’s first capital city.  If that description is too obtuse or linguistically puzzling, just get this: media should contribute to human flourishing, and they can when they are done right, when their practitioners and users do the right thing.


Case studies help users and professionals achieve focus.  You get a set of facts, often built on a historical case, and then you have to solve it, that is, come up with a morally justifiable decision on how to do the right thing.  Cases in this book follow the four “functions” of media:  news, advertising, public relations, and entertainment.  Following each case is moral commentary applying the Potter Box analysis, explained in the first full chapter titled Ethical Foundations and Perspectives.

It should go without mention that not everyone in the room will arrive at an identical solution to any given case.   This should not discourage anyone.  It is not hopeless moral relativism (everything is just each person’s opinion, or bias) to arrive at varying conclusions.  We do not aim for uniformity, as you might in a class on algebra.  Applying different moral principles, for example, may lead to differing yet fully justifiable moral solutions.  Loyalty to different constituencies could produce differing moral action plans.  The Potter Box analysis helps parse each approach, and provides a framework for reconsideration based on renewed understanding of the issues at stake.

Why did we authors limit the moral principles applied to media in this book to only five?  Surely that must seem like serving asparagus every day in your dining commons when the farms nearby produce a hundred different veggies.   First, our choice of five was a workable array, we thought.  This book is not intended for a course in philosophical ethics or survey of Western thought.  It is a book on applied media ethics, and for that reason alone we do not offer variants on every philosopher’s intriguing moral notions (applause, applause).

Second, our choice was a range of time-tested, traditional (in the sense of worldwide and well-used), and diverse moral principles that we could recommend to media professions in all fields.  Notice we did not select egoism for commentary in this book.  Not that egoism lacks a popular following, only that we believe it has little to offer for the flourishing of community.  You may disagree.  Fine.  We neither spoon-feed what we recommend nor banish by barbed-wire what we don’t recommend.  The solutions to the dilemmas presented in these cases are yours to decide.  If your preferred moral compass is the better option, get it out there.  Make it public.

At the end of the day, this book hopes to improve your analytical skills and your ethical awareness.  Both require practice.  If you enter a media profession, your practice will have already begun.  When you ponder your next purchase of mediated stuff, you’ll know the why-to-buy better, we hope, than you do now.  If not, tear into shreds your tattered old copy of Media Ethics and fedex the mess back to us.  OK, we’re kidding, sorry for the ethically questionable suggestion.

You will find considerable help in both analysis and ethical awareness at the book’s outstanding website, which you may access at

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