Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice


Patrick Lee Plaisance

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    To Atisaya–I thank Goodness for you every day.


    This second edition extends and refines the primary focus of the first: to provide students with a solid foundation for understanding and applying key ethical principles critical for responsible media practice. Unlike most of the media ethics case study texts, this puts ethics theory front and center in a way that is accessible and designed to raise the level of classroom discussion. By focusing on the philosophical foundations of key principles in an easily understandable yet thought-provoking way, this book attempts both to illustrate the deliberative nature of ethics and to provide knowledge necessary to add substance to students' claims and judgments about media behavior. It offers explanations that link theory with practice through the work of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, W. D. Ross, Philippa Foot, and others. With this focus, the author hopes students may develop a greater understanding of the work of ethics—both how challenging it is and how engaging it can be in everyday life. Thus, this book is an attempt to reinforce the need to apply philosophy and to counter intellectual and ethical laziness. “The undisciplined mind,” Dewey said, “is averse to suspense and intellectual hesitation; it is prone to assertion” (Dewey, 1976, p. 197).

    Without this understanding, ethical deliberations are less likely to transcend simplistic gut-level responses, veiled partisan preferences, and gross generalizations about media systems and behavior. By its nature, an ethics discussion is likely to be wide ranging and, to some extent, reductive. And it is unreasonable to expect media ethics students—or even most media ethics instructors, for that matter—to spend large chunks of their time immersed in reading the original works of the theorists covered here and painstakingly bringing them to bear on specific media practices. But students are ill prepared to make solid ethical arguments or to get beyond reflexive restatements of value claims and relativistic thinking if they have a weak grasp of the philosophical basis for guiding principles. This book attempts to provide students with a critically needed yet not overwhelming dose of philosophy to ensure that the ethics in media ethics actually means something more than making armchair judgments that this journalist was wrong or that public relations firm was irresponsible.

    New to this Edition

    The second edition of Media Ethics aims to refine and expand the thrust of the first edition in two ways. The first is to clarify its presentation of the theories used in the philosophy of ethics that are relevant to media practice. The second is to emphasize how these theories can help us negotiate challenges presented in our digital media world. The new edition provides four significant features:

    • A new chapter, “Key Frameworks,” which presents the distinguishing features of virtue ethics, duty ethics, and consequentialist ethics. This chapter provides a condensed account of each approach and discusses the strengths and limitations of each.
    • A new chapter, “Technology,” which introduces students to the philosophy of technology and explores the ethical implications of the world of social media and emerging media technologies. This chapter is designed to more comprehensively link ethics theory to our digital media world. It also is intended to set the stage for substantive discussion on topics such as what values might be embedded in technologies, and how the architecture of social media influences the ways in which we communicate with each other.
    • A dozen new and revised Case in Point examples of media practice. Each of the six “key principles” chapters features a new case illustrating a dilemma in digital media, addressing topics such as greenwashing, geo-fencing, data mining, and PR use of social media.
    • Updated discussion of theorists and principles throughout the chapters, more effectively linking the classics with modern-day writers who suggest ways to adapt the claims of Aristotle, Kant, and others for contemporary life. Each chapter also has been updated to include recent examples of applied principles and media practices.
    Linking Ethics Theory and Practice

    In this era of interactivity and intense media scrutiny, real-life cases and examples of behavior that raise questions of media ethics are a dime a dozen. There is a healthy variety of case study books from which media ethics instructors can choose. There are useful collections of cases, scandals, and model behavior available on the Web. And most good media ethics instructors are continuously collecting their own examples—from trade journals, mainstream media, and daily Web postings by media ethicists—for use in their classes. This text is intended to do what most of the published case study collections in media ethics do not. Not only do many media ethics case study texts provide only a minimal account of the principles that should inform media behavior; they make little effort to explain the philosophical justifications for asserting the principles in the first place. They provide plenty of material on media, yet they are often thin on ethics—and their purported ethical discussions too often center on normative standards and best practices rather than on a true application of the philosophy of ethics.

    This book also features a large number of case studies that serve to illustrate how key principles are relevant in the real world of media practice. It combines ethics theory with media practice through dozens of cases of media behavior that raise ethical questions. In addition to illustrative examples of media behavior that are discussed throughout the text, each of the book's six principles chapters features four boxed Case in Point studies relevant to the chapter topic—one each from the areas of journalism, public relations, and advertising and another on a relevant aspect of digital media. But this is not a case study textbook. The heavily used media ethics case study textbooks now on the market do an excellent job of providing real-world instances of media practice that raise important ethics questions. Some of the cases in these books present exemplary models of ethical behavior. Other scandalous cases illustrate what happens when media professionals fail to meet their ethical duties. The best cases are genuinely difficult gray areas that lend themselves to legitimate arguments in support of dramatically opposite courses of action or that make us struggle to find new ways to seek common ground and acceptable compromises among conflicting values and stakeholders.

    Some may quibble with the perceived lack of comprehensiveness of the list of key principles featured in this book. Other lists may include concepts such as freedom, stewardship, care, and others. But each concept in this book is considered to be, either implicitly or explicitly, central in media ethics research and theory as well as in professional codes of ethics. Several also subsume related concepts—the notion of freedom is an important component of this book's chapter on autonomy, for example.

    This book also covers concepts such as transparency and community that are not normally discussed at length in other media ethics case study texts. While these are often mentioned in the media ethics literature, they rarely are the focus of any substantial discussions since they may be perceived as beyond the scope of media studies. However, the ways in which both students and professionals understand how respect is manifested in communication and what “community” encompasses have enormous implications for what counts as “responsible” media behavior. This reflects a subtext throughout all the main chapters, which is an examination of the liberal Enlightenment assumptions on which much of our Western individualistic culture is based. Acknowledging these assumptions and understanding the implications of them is critical not only for media practitioners interested in cultivating a “public sphere,” but for students with diverse expectations of media performance. For example, students immersed in our self-centric culture and with only a vague notion of the centrality of “community” to the human experience may be less likely to understand the need for journalistic investigative techniques.

    With this book's deliberative focus and its accessible synthesis of key strands of philosophical thought, the author hopes to provide a useful resource for media ethics instructors and for the media professionals of tomorrow.

    Dewey J. (1976). The middle works, 1859–1952 (Vol. 9, J. A. Boydston, Ed.). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


    This book would not have been possible without the support, mentorship, and inspiration of a wide range of people. Foremost is my wife, Atisaya, whose generous spirit, gracious forbearance, and sharp editing continually provide me with a needed foundation, both of the moral and more earthbound kinds. My son Carter and my daughter Simone are blessings that daily replenish my sense of wonderment. I am indebted to my media ethics students over the years for enabling me to envision this project, for continually challenging me, for cultivating my optimism for the future, and for suffering through early drafts of chapters. The warm and supportive mentorship of Clifford Christians and Jay Black over the years has been humbling and inspiring.

    I also owe a debt of thanks to Matthew Brynie at SAGE for his encouragement and support, and I am grateful for the valuable criticism and suggestions of my reviewers: John Ferré of the University of Louisville, Jenn Burleson Mackay of Virginia Tech, Susan C. Worley of Juniata College, Cathy M. Jackson of Norfolk State University, Ryan J. Thomas of Washington State University, Antoinette F. Winstead of Our Lady of the Lake University, and Christopher Meyers of California State University–Bakersfield. Also thanks to Jay Black of the University of South Florida, Jack Breslin of Iona College, Kris Bunton of the University of St. Thomas, Dane S. Claussen of Point Park University, J. William Click of Winthrop University, David Craig of the University of Oklahoma, Bryan Denham of Clemson University, Walter B. Jaehnig of Southern Illinois University, Jeffrey J. Maciejewski of Creighton University, Anthony Moretti of Point Park, Bonita Dostal Neff of Valparaiso University, Maggie Jones Patterson of Duquesne University, William E. Sledzik of Kent State University, Ernest L. Wiggins of the University of South Carolina, and Wendy N. Wyatt of St. Thomas.

  • About the Author

    Patrick Lee Plaisance is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University, where he teaches media ethics, reporting, and mass communication theory on the undergraduate and graduate levels. His primary research areas include media ethics, moral psychology, newsroom socialization, and the philosophy of communication. His work has focused on analyzing how ethics theory can be more effectively brought to bear on media practice as well as on conducting qualitative and quantitative social science research in media-related settings. He worked for nearly 15 years as a journalist at newspapers around the country, including papers in Los Angeles, south Florida, New Jersey, and Virginia. He received a PhD in mass communications from Syracuse University. He also is the author of Virtue in Media: The Moral Psychology of Excellence in News & PR. He has contributed chapters and case studies to numerous journalism and media ethics books and has published more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles in journals, including Communication Research, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Communication Theory, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, and The International Journal of Applied Philosophy.

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