Defining moments, decision points, and principled responses

ethics presentation clip

Advocacy Journalism: COM563 Final Presentation

My final project in this graduate program nudged me to consider the issue of advocacy journalism, especially with the ongoing uproar of the Presidential primaries. When the media holds such sway, and the public hold such deep distrust for the media as a reliable source of information, but yet respond so fervently to the emotional appeals and shock value provided by the media, where is the voice of reason to be found?

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics offers some key pointers to professional communicators:

  • Seek Truth and Report It. Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  • Minimize Harm. Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. 
  • Act Independently. The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public. 
  • Be Accountable and Transparent. Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

Advocacy journalism demands that we take a stand. It demands that we stay willing to thoughtfully explore other ideas, beliefs and arguments while respectfully articulating our own. Advocacy journalism asks us to provide more in-depth information than sound bites, to hold deeper principles than those of playing to a mob mentality for the sake of ratings. It asks us to be principled.


Pick Up Those Sticks

Pick-Up SticksPicking up the sticks of manipulation

Michael Parenti in his article Methods of Media Manipulation describes several types of manipulation used to “faithfully reflect the dominant ideology, seldom straying into territory that might cause discomfort to those who hold political and economic power, including those who own the media or advertise in it” (1997, p. 5):

  • suppression by omission
  • attack and destroy target
  • labeling
  • face-value transmission
  • false balancing
  • framing

These are clearly unethical practices in journalism. Multiple studies cited in Journalism Ethics in a Global Communication Era: The Framing Journalism Perspective describe the consequences of such practices: ” . . . people rarely learned much from news and what they learned was quickly forgotten . . .[and] . . . News failed to adequately inform the public on most issues even during political campaigns when more people paid attention to news and had greater concern about politics” (Davis & Kent, 2013, p. 71). Just a quick glimpse into what is featured on TV, radio, newspapers and streaming in social media feeds paints an even more appalling picture in real time of what this looks like.

DSCN2120 (2) - CopyThe Fourth Estate

Why is the media covering stories and reporting in a fashion that foments discord and discontent? Why do journalists take an insular stance to what should be a crucial role of investigating and reporting on the mosaic of people, places and institutions that comprise a democratic society?

Davis & Kent put forth the notion that journalists hold tight to the belief that: “Journalism . . . is a Fourth Estate, . . . [and] . . .  must remain completely independent of all other institutions so that it can serve the public as an objective observer of politics, business, religion, medicine, law, and education . . .  Many journalists were surprised in 2007 when James Fallows, a prominent journalist, argued that news media were undermining democracy,” (p. 72).

Perhaps, Fallow’s criticism should not come as a great surprise.

In Ethical Orientations of Journalists Around the Globe: Implications From a Cross-National Survey,the authors note that the social transaction theory has been studied for decades, but very rarely applied to the field of journalism. The reality, according to their findings, is that ” . . .journalists’  ethical outlooks are . . . related to the larger structural system in which they operate . . . [and] . . . on the way journalists around the globe approach ethical dilemmas” (Plaisance, et al., 2007, p. 654).

The researchers urge examination of “truth-telling, no harm to the innocent, empowerment and human dignity . . . (p. 654), dovetailing with Davis & Kent’s position that “Framing theory and research directly challenge the notion that news stories can and should be objective . . . there is no objective social reality that can be described using traditional reporting practices . . . the social world is constructed and this construction is constantly being negotiated,” (p. 73).

Is objective framing possible – or even desirable?

On the face of it, it would seem that framing is necessary and inescapable. Journalists — indeed, all of us — live within systems in which we both observe and participate. This makes objectivity impractical, and virtually impossible to achieve. And, so perhaps we have found the flaw in the Fourth Estate’s insular approach to reporting, a flaw that is seemingly paving the path to an undermined democracy. It doesn’t do to frame one’s messages in solitude.

Parenti’s earlier description of framing was a recognition of the tactic as  manipulation, calling it the “most effective propaganda . . . bending the truth rather than breaking it,” (1997, p. 6).  The damage that occurs because of this truth-bending is rapidly apparent to any person taking the time to compare versions and perspectives of life’s happenings.

In the article What Caused the Irish Potato Famine? by Mark Thornton, the duplicity that still accompanies the “framing” of this piece of history is appalling, as the English government continues to try and justify their policies and actions in maintaining hegemony over the Irish people.  The truth is slowly coming out. Memorialized in many different ways, the story serves as a new way frame the devastation of poverty.

DSCN3547DSCN3564Davis & Kent do mention the troubling concern that those who attempt to take on the status quo by reframing the information are likely to be “. . . criticized as troublemakers, radicals or even traitors . . . [making it] . . .  especially difficult and unlikely for journalists to offer frames that effectively contradict or question the status quo during times of crisis or controversy,” (p. 74).

Their suggestion for ways to address these troubles is to take a public relations and marketing approach, asking citizens to provide feedback on how framing is perceived and used, and to provide alternate frames more in line with local issues and events (p. 77). However, just in my own anecdotal research and conversations, I would say that citizens feel just as constrained and threatened by the same troubles professional journalists face for speaking outside the accepted box, disturbing the status quo, and may be reticent to share those views.

So, where does that leave professional communicators? I’m a big advocate of tending to your own backyard and getting straight with yourself before you take on the wider concerns. Determine your ethical frame and then start practicing it in your daily walk of life first.

Davis, D.K., Kent, K. (2013). Journalism Ethics in a Global Communication Era: The Framing Journalism Perspective. China Media Research, (9)2, 71-82. Retrieved from:
Michael Parenti. (1997). Methods of Media Manipulation [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Plaisance, P.L., Skewes, E. A., & Hanitzch, T. (2012). Ethical Orientations of Journalists Around the Globe: Implications From a Cross-National Survey. Communication Research, 39(5), 641-661. DOI: 10.1177/0093650212450584
All photos (c) S. Blood, 2014

It’s a Pirate’s Life for Me

This week our ethics class was asked to consider how a code of ethics may be “fundamentally flawed” because of the mismatch between moral choice and action in a business world driven by competition and hierarchy. Regardless of any organization’s formal statement of business ethics or practices, the reality is revealed in its organizational culture. Culture functions rather like an iceberg, mostly operating below the radar, and causing a rude awakening when one runs aground the hidden notions and unstated beliefs of an operationalized code of conduct.

Wood and Rimmer state, “The concept of ‘commitment’ to codes is not a simple idea that can be translated into a solitary quantitative measure. Rather it is a complex idea that can be approached from a number of different directions (2003, p. 191).”

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit for your viewing pleasure and further consideration this lovely example of what Wood and Rimmer are discussing:


          Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren…

          Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re      not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

As Wood and Rimmer point out (p. 191), “Having a code is not enough to ensure commitment to the code. It must be intertwined into the daily life of the organisation. It should not be an ornament of the organisation, but the catalyst for an entire program of business ethics within organisations that engenders better practices in the marketplace.”

Entertainment factor notwithstanding, is the PoC segment really so far off from how organizations tend to operate in today’s world? A formal code of ethics, frequently referred to, called upon, held up as a measuring rod . . . but used only in the most general of ways when applied to one’s daily conduct, decisions, actions in life?

Apparently, some other professional organizations agree with the guidelines idea so succinctly stated by Barbossa:

  • Emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that fails to comply with the Code.
  • The RTDNA Code of Ethics does not dictate what journalists should do in every ethical predicament; rather it offers resources to help journalists make better ethical decisions – on and off the job – for themselves and for the communities they serve.

Enron provides some notable case examples of just why it is important to have a match between a code of ethics and an accountable code of conduct. In Management Communication Quarterly (August 2003), a case study on Enron’s collapse, points out a few key issues that companies ought to consider:

  • “Individuals and groups have morally based obligations and duties to others and to larger ethical, moral, and legal codes, standards and traditions” (p. 60).
  • Organizations have a responsibility to operate according social norms and standards, and to “support the general health and well-being of society” (p. 61).
  • Leadership provides the moral model by which an organization’s operations and culture are defined and informed.
  • Dissent and opposing views and opinions must not only be tolerated but attended to in order to proactively identify and address issues of concern.

Enron’s “aggressive growth and rapid exploitation of new opportunities and technologies” (p. 70) without leadership’s consistent and thoughtful attention to “fulfilling . . . responsibilities by actively modeling or communicating a set of broad social values associated with ethical and moral conduct” (p. 71), set the stage for eventual collapse. Periods of turbulent change and growth challenge individuals and organizations to stay the course and adhere to the rudder of ethical constraints at the best of times; however, Enron’s leaders displayed an astonishing capacity for hedonism, clearly privileging “norms and values regarding abuse of power, privilege, deception, wealth, greed, and rule breaking” (p. 72).

A final thought on ethics and conduct, from the American Advertising Federation code: “The one constant is transparency, and the need to conduct ourselves, our businesses, and our relationships with consumers in a fair, honest, and forthright manner.”

Words, anyone? We are only as ethical as our actual conduct expresses.

Greg Wood and Malcolm Rimmer (2003), “Codes of Ethics: What Are They Really and What Should They Be?” International Journal of Value-Based Management Volume 16, Number 2 (2003), 181-195, DOI: 10.1023/A:1024089509424
Matthew W. Seeger and Robert R. Ulmer, “Explaining Enron: Communication and Responsible Leadership,” Management Communication Quarterly, 17 (1): 58-84

Balance: Gotta Have It

0102161254a_0001Deontology generally focuses on the process people use to make ethical decisions, with the general assumption that an ethical process will, by definition, lead to ethical results.              (COM 563 — Lesson 3 Overview)

Question: Can an exclusive focus on the process of decision-making — to the exclusion of a focus on consequences — yield ethical decisions?

Answer: Nope. The question itself suggests a lack of balance in determining the ethical decision. In fact, an exclusive focus on anything generally (in my experience, personally and professionally) leads to poor consequences, a lack of balanced results, predictably causing (at best) discomfort, and (at worst) serious harm.

But, let’s see what the experts say:

DSCN0215 (2)Duty for duty’s sake

Kant’s “categorical imperative” is defined as “the unconditional moral principle that one’s behavior should accord with universalizable maxims which respect persons as ends in themselves . . . [and] . . .  the obligation to do one’s duty for its own sake and not in pursuit of further ends” (retrieved from

Kant’s primary argument against consequence-based ethical decisions is summed up by Johnson’s essay, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy” (retrieved from

When we do something because it is our moral duty, Kant argued, we are motivated by the thought that, insofar as we are rational beings, we must act only as this fundamental law of (practical) reason prescribes, a law that would prescribe how any rational being in our circumstances should act. Whatever else such a law might be, it is, in virtue of being a principle of reason, true of all rational agents. 

In other words, for Kant “process” can lead you to places other than obeying the universalizable maxim. However, universalizable maxims are anything but universalizable and do not take into account the multitude of factors impacting decisions, end results and consequences.

tracks in cracked mudBogged down in detail

For example, if the universal maxim is that all people deserve access to affordable, high quality health care, then the logical decision is to legislate universal health care.

However, any piece of legislation must consider the implementation of the law — the how, who, where, what and when — for good or ill across multiple spheres, public and private. It is in the debates on the details of implementation, though, that necessary action to “respect persons as ends in themselves” can get bogged down by quibbling over details and action steps.

For Rawl’s, a simple solution is to “draw a veil of ignorance” over the issue when making ethical decisions. The veil of ignorance is necessary to preserve “a just society . . . [with] . . . equal citizenship . . . [and] . . . rights secured by justice . . . [that is] . . . not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests” (p. 4). From Rawl’s perspective, this approach “ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances” (p. 12).

While Rawl’s theory is a lovely one, it again evades the reality of consequences. When the choice has been made, how does it play out? What is the impact, and on whom? These are important considerations when developing policies and programs that touch on the lives of a diverse population.

That being said, the reality in the policy arena is that policy makers can hand down expectations based on new laws (or revisions to current laws) that are not morally good. The public alludes to this when they criticize “pork barrel” budget privisos, or lobbyist-driven legislation. It then rests on the implementing agencies to bring to life the law in ways that are still morally good, even if they originated out of morally bad reasoning or actions.

balanced tower of rocksThe convolutions of hope 

Ross offers hope for the struggling implementer of poor policy, pointing out that “no act is right unless done from some good motive, such as either sense of duty or benevolence (p. 2) and that “the only acts that are morally good are those that proceed from a good motive” (p.4). In a very real sense, he moves the conversation from one of pure theory to one of action, stating that considering “the doing of a right act may be a morally bad action, and that the doing of a wrong act may be a morally good action; for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ refer entirely to the thing done, ‘morally good’ and ‘morally bad’ entirely to the motive from which it is done (p. 7). A convoluted mouthful of hope, to be sure.

On the other hand, Ross also reminds us that “An act is not right because it . . . produces good results different from itself; it is right because . . . [the]. . . . production is right in itself, apart from any consequence” (p. 47).

So, where does that leaves us?

With the usual “it depends” and the impulse to make snarky comments about the ongoing fifty shades of grey notion when it comes to these sorts of discussions.

Like I said at the beginning — balance. Gotta have it.


Johnson, Robert, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 3-22, 60-65, 136-142.

W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), ch 1 & 2