4.5 Media Ethics
Media Ethics deals with the ethical issues arising in the context of the production, dissemination and reception of mass media content (information, news, entertainment, advertisement, opinions, etc.). Mass media, here, includes TV, radio, print media (Newspapers, magazines, etc.), and internet as an information dissemination platform. Individual media like telephone and email are usually not in the focus of media ethics. Within this field, we distinguish issues that matter for producers from those that are important for consumers. Among the former are debates about journalism ethics, censorship (審查), the responsibility of media as a social institution in democratic countries, and certain forms of content like violence or sex in films, TV and/or (online) video games. In the latter field, it is discussed whether consumption of media has a responsibility dimension for recipients, with special attention towards children and teenagers. Lately, it has also been publicly debated whether an excessive usage of internet can show tendencies of addiction or causing other mental disorders. Here, we will talk about two issues: First, we will approach media ethics from the consumer side and discuss media competence. Then, we will discuss whether media producers have the ethical duty to select the offered media content by certain intellectual standards or whether they are justified to orient themselves towards the most popular content and aim at profit.
4.5.1 Media competence
From the consumer perspective, we need to ask ourselves what we do with the offered mass media content. Do we mindlessly consume everything, or even select only the shallow and stupid content, are we susceptible for manipulation and indoctrination with ideology? When TV became a mass technology, it has been promoted as “enabling everyone to get access to information, making every citizen a full member of the democratic society, educating the people”. 40 years later, studies find that excessive TV consumption causes adverse health effects (obesity, eye problems, etc.) and lowers intellectual skills (shorter attention span, lack of creativity and imagination, etc.).
Critiques of media that are frequently expressed refer to psychological, cognitive and intellectual effects of unthoughtful consumption of media, mostly TV, but also online social media. Among those are:
- Indoctrination (灌輸) with false, questionable or unethical information (ideology, manipulation, etc.)
- Stultification (變愚昧)
- Dulling (變麻木)
- Brutalisation (變殘酷無情)
- Mental health impact (isolation, depression, addiction)
- Physical health impact (eyes, lack of sunshine and movement)
- Social impact (asociality (反社會), opinion formation,
Zeitgeist (時代精神), „pleasure society“)
Since the obvious effect of media consumption on physical and mental health has been recognised, many schools (at least in Germany) teach media competence to young pupils (13-14 years old, 6th or 7th grade). Media competence means the skill to understand media content and to protect oneself from adverse effects of it. These are elements of it:
- Technical competence to use media technology – This point can be understood in two ways. First, if mass media is understood as an important element of democratic practice (in the form of information source and control power), it is very crucial that people have the technical competence to use the technical devices that give them access to information. Old people, for example, often can’t use PCs, so that online sources are not available for them. If all newspaper change from printed versions to online formats, my grandparents would not be able to read any news. The second issue is the technical knowledge about health effects. The new generation of TV and PC screens emits blue light that has been shown to impact sleeping quality. It is, therefore, recommended, not to let babies and children watch such screens for more than 30 minutes, and especially not before bedtime! Parents need to know these things so that they can put their educational decisions on a reasonable foundation.
- Recognising and understanding different forms, functions and genres of media (e.g. News, entertainment, advertisement, fiction and non-fiction, etc.) – Problems arise when consumers can’t tell the difference between advertisement and independent neutral news and information, or historical documentary from fictional story-telling. An example case are “Reality TV shows” (about families, teenagers, policemen, doctors, judges, etc.) that attempt to look like documentaries of real people in private or professional situations, while indeed they are actors and follow a script. This may lead to severe misconceptions and false illusions among mindless consumers who believe these are real cases.
- Knowledge of the effect of certain illustrations and presentations – When a Danish cartoonist published a caricature of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, it caused a political outrage in the Arabic world, with protestors attacking Danish embassies. Whether such a caricature is legitimate or not, the illustrator should have known that this might happen. In the same way, in view of the common trend to share and link videos and photos on social media platforms, consumers need the competence to estimate what the distribution and display of certain content might mean for others, and what consequences one might have to face. This also includes the competence to point others (friends, family members, etc.) at certain effects of their consumption and social media behaviour that they are not aware of.
- Differentiating between real and virtual/fictional world – It has been discussed whether the consumption of violence and sexual content (for example pornography) by means of mass media leads to a distorted imagination and expectation in the consumer, resulting in misbehaviour and improper conduct. For example, when children see violent movies, they also beat Kids on the playground and are surprised when the reaction is different from what they have experienced on TV (“They always stand up again in the movies!”). Pornography is said to lead either to a dullness and decreased sexual stimulation, or to instrumentalisation of sex partners and extremely unrealistic expectations concerning sexual pleasure and performance, ultimately resulting in disappointment, dissatisfaction or low self-esteem.
- Ethical judgments: Recognising and condemning harmful media content – Especially via the internet, a vast flood of unfiltered information is streaming in. Some of the content is unethical and to be condemned, for example pedophilic pornography, racist or sexist propaganda, or questionable political, religious or profit-oriented ideology and misinformation. Consumers need a certain “moral compass” to be able to identify content as unethical or immoral or in any way despicable.
- Judge, choose and process media content critically – We need media content for our daily life, as information source, when we prepare presentations for school or work, when we entertain ourselves, when we communicate with friends and peers. Necessarily, we need to choose and select. The competence to judge what is good or appropriate information, and to present it in the proper way, is an important skill, especially in terms of feedback for and control of the media. When it is true that consumers decide what kind of content is provided by media producers, then our judgments and choices has the power to influence the quality and ethical integrity of media content.
From this short overview we can see how important discourse responsibility in the field of media consumption is. Same as most other human activities, we barely do that on our own. Discussing with friends and family has a big impact on our behaviour concerning the mass media! For example, the problem is not that Kids watch too much TV, but that parents don’t take enough time to discuss with them what they see. Violence on TV can only have a negative impact on the consumer when there is nobody to point out the ethical values involved in it. After this course, you will be more aware of the ethical dimensions of media consumption, so it might be your responsibility to share these insights with mindless consumers around you.
4.5.2 Producer Responsibility
Most media producers, broadcasters and print media publishers are for-profit organisations and companies that aim at making money. This goal might be in conflict with their social responsibility to inform the public and serve as a control power for politics and public. Entertainment and shows with high advertisement value (for example sports events) bring more income than “serious” content, educational and cultural shows, philosophical debate clubs, or political information. Generally, the demand of consumers as expressed in the audience rates (收視率) has a high impact on the decisions of media makers on what kind of content to offer. The German movie “Reclaim your Brain” (title in Germany: “Free Rainer”) is a brilliant satire about this topic: A media producer is tired of conceptualising stupid but profitable game shows. He wants to take responsibility and “make the population smarter” by manipulating the devices that analyse the audience rates so that it looks like German people prefer philosophical and cultural shows over game shows and shallow entertainment. Following this trend, all TV channels suddenly offer challenging and “smart” content, obviously representing the Zeitgeist.
Imagine a discussion between a profit-oriented manager and a “responsible” media designer about a new game show concept. The manager is mostly interested in quick profit. She sees media companies as service providers that serve the interests of consumers. Therefore, media producers should publish what as many people as possible find interesting and would watch. The responsibility for what they consume and what they do with it is completely on the consumer side. “We can offer them total nonsense, if that is what they like and choose to watch!”. The media designer, on the contrary, sees media-making as a job with high social and political responsibility in terms of mass education and information. A well-working democracy and advanced society is based on people who are well-informed and have a certain degree of intellectual capability. Stupid game shows are dangerous because they make the consumers dull and stupid. It is the duty of designers like her to make sure that the broadcasted content fulfils minimum standards of meaningfulness and even challenges the consumers a bit.
The designer’s viewpoint might be called medial paternalism: Media producers choose and offer what is good for the consumers, and by the expertise of their profession they are in the position to know that. Same as school education would be shallow and inefficient if the students were asked to choose the content of the classes, the broadcasted programs are shallow because the consumers ask for the simplest and dumbest possible entertainment. Like fathers take care of their children and like teachers challenge their students, media producers should also challenge the audience and maintain a certain intellectual standard. Media professionals may have a hard time claiming this responsibility! Profit and market arguments appear powerful and convincing, too. Common counter-arguments are: “Other channels can cover the meaningful content!”, “Not each and every of our shows have to be challenging!”, “If we only offer unpopular content, we lose our position, our budget and more market share!”. These arguments – same as the common “If I don’t do it, someone else will!” in technology ethics – can be refuted by claiming a moral responsibility that must be “universal” in the sense that it may be expected from every media professional and as a general standard that is not a matter of gradual compliance or opportunistic selection.
Special attention is paid to norms in producing and broadcasting News. In contrast to entertainment, the responsibility for keeping a certain standard is higher, since News are generally viewed with a higher expectation on truthfulness and meaningfulness. In entertainment, the consumers are usually aware of the entertaining character of what they watch or read, but whatever is labelled “News” immediately gets a more serious notion. Commonly expressed norms are:
- Truth, Objectivity – To the best of their knowledge, journalists and reporters should stick to facts and real events. While philosophically critical (What is truth? What is real? How can we know?), it puts special demands on the methods and guidelines of journalism and reporting.
- Completeness, selectivity – It is impossible to report everything that happens. Almost inevitably, reporters and news agencies have to make a selection. However, this selection should, at least, be fair, neutral and unbiased, giving consumers a chance to get an image of the issues that is as complete as possible and as unbiased as necessary.
- Independence, incorruptibility – Media can fulfil its role as control power only when it is independent and not corrupted by powerful institutions. Nobody should have the power to influence the content and political or ideological orientation of mass media. We may find broadcasters and media companies with a clear orientation and target group (for example, a conservative newspaper, or a communist TV channel), but then it must be labelled clearly as such!
- Appropriate presentation – There are rules for what to show in TV and print news, and what is inappropriate. Usually, the News don’t show dead people, blood, cruelty, or humiliating video or photographic material, unless it is of important contemporary historical interest (like the massacre of students on Tian-An-Men square in Beijing in 1989). The News design should be moderate and functional, and never emotionally stimulating or appealing like entertainment.
- Appropriate investigation – News from dubious sources or questionable information should not be broadcasted without investigative reflection. The credibility of News makers is easily lost when it turns out that News have been faked or based on wrong sources. An example from a German magazine in the 1980s: A man sold the diaries of Adolf Hitler (that he got from unknown sources) to the reporter of a famous News magazine. They were printed after an insufficient verification of the documents. Later it turned out that the diaries were faked. The magazine lost its credibility and wide parts of its readership!
We may have a look at the typical Taiwanese TV News: I got the impression (which you might confirm) that there is a relatively high percentage of irrelevant and meaningless “News” while national and international politics and socially important reports are underrepresented. I even saw the introduction of new noodle restaurants, neighbourhood fights, or car accidents in the “breaking news”! Here is an example from “TaiwanNews”, an online News source with a serious attitude (rather than entertainment):
We can’t complain about the “truth” character of this form of News, because it is not wrong in principle. However, an ethical problem arises from the fact that an overrepresentation of this kind of news might give the consumers the impression that these kind of things really matter while the political decisions of the government, new laws, or environmental pollution by large corporations remain unknown. In this way, the media is far from fulfilling its responsibility as control power and information source for a democratic society. The relevance is close to zero. The presentation is entertaining and clearly orientated towards attracting consumers. On top of that, investigation and journalistic research are often utterly poor. In a report of one minute, the same photo or the same 10 seconds of video snippet are repeated over and over until the storyline is finished. In some cases, news reports even use youtube videos or other shaking and blurry amateur recordings.
Here we close the circle with the consumer power again: Probably, the only way to change this “news culture” is to simply switch off this News channel and choose sources that offer more meaningful content.
4.5.3 Practice Questions
- In the 1980s, Milka chocolate advertised their products (purple designs) with a purple cow. In a study, it was found that a significant number of Kids in cities believed that cows were purple. Can Milka be blamed? Who is responsible?
- Real case: In 1987, a reporter wants to interview a politician after a scandal, breaks into his Hotel room, and finds him dead in the bathtub (suicide). He takes a photo and publishes it on the same day. One week later, a big magazine reprints the photo as „important document of contemporary history“. Is this acceptable?
- What is your opinion on the Taiwanese News quality? Do you discuss this with friends or in your family? Why are the News like this? Should it change, and how can it?