Communication Ethics

views updated


Communication ethics is concerned primarily with human communication mediated by communications technologies, from print to radio, television, and other advanced electronic media. As such it assumes the importance of ethical responsibilities in direct or immediate communication, such as the obligation to speak truthfully, and seeks to reflect on how these carry over into the complex circumstances that arise with the development of communications science and technology. Because of the historical role played by reflection on ethics in relation to mass circulation print technologies in the form of newspapers during the first half of the twentieth century, communication ethics has its roots in journalism ethics. Because of the multiplicity of communications media during the last half of the twentieth century, the term media ethics is sometimes used as a synonym for communication ethics.

Contemporary Context

The communication technologies that produce and distribute information are an economic paradise. Massive multimedia conglomerates are at war for the trillions of dollars at stake—Pearson PLC in England, Bertlesmann in Germany, Microsoft and Disney in the United States, the Rupert Murdoch empire, and Sony of Japan. The business tycoons of these global companies do not specialize in hard goods, but control images, data, software, and ideas. Clusters of high-tech communication firms are re-mapping the planet. Previous geographical alignments organized by political power are being reordered in terms of electronic megasystems.

The revolution is not taking place in abstraction, outside of everyday affairs. Banking, the stock market, entertainment media, and the military represent the most advanced electronic communication systems. However the menagerie of fiber optics, supercomputer data, and satellite technology, although inescapably global, is local and personal as well. Television, CDs and CD-ROMs, DVDs and VCRs, online databases, rock music channels, PCs, video games, cellular telephones, and virtual reality—the electronic highway has become the everyday world of advanced industrial societies

Public life in the twenty-first century is being altered in complex ways through ubiquitous multimedia technologies, and ethics is essential for coming to grips with them. Language is indispensable to humanness and to the social order; therefore when human communication capacity is mediated in fundamentally different ways than before, the impact is substantial and far-reaching. Accounting for the social influence of media technologies is an historical and empirical task, but clearly the domain of communication ethics as well.

Communication as Symbol Making

The mainstream view in communication studies has been a mechanistic stimulus-response model rooted in empiricist science. However since the 1990s, communication theory has been complemented with an interpretive turn. From this perspective, human discourse and culture become fundamental, and language is the public agent through which identity is realized. Individuals are integrated into social units through symbol, myth, and metaphor. Communication is the creative process of building and reaffirming through symbols, with cultures the constructions that result. In a symbolic approach to communications, concepts are not isolated from their representations. The social and individual dimensions of language are a unified whole. Through the social nature of language, human beings integrate specific messages with the larger project of cultural formation.

Although not identical to that which they symbolize, symbols participate in their meaning. They share the significance of that to which they point. Symbols create what human beings call reality. Human identity embedded in representations matters to people. Thus worries about racism, sexism, and age discrimination in language are not marginal but central to socially responsible communication. The manner in which race, age, gender, class, disabilities, economic status, and ethnicity are represented symbolically influences the possibilities for a just sociopolitical order.

From a symbolic perspective, when symbols are mediated technologically, the changes in human life and culture must be understood historically and evaluated morally. Walter Ong (2002) calls this technologizing the word. Symbolic theory presumes that the history of communications is central to the history of civilization, that social change results from media transformations, that changes in symbolic forms alter the structure of consciousness.

The Canadian scholar Harold Innis (1951), for instance, studied the introduction of papyrus, the printing press, radio, and the telegraph—and documented a bias regarding space and time. Oral communication systems, he argued, are biased toward time, making time continuous while rendering space discontinuous. Print systems, by contrast, are biased toward space, making geography continuous and breaking time into distinct units.

Thus from the introduction of cuneiform writing to contemporary communication satellites and fiber optics, media technologies have attracted considerable attention—scholars in the symbolic tradition examining all significant shifts in technological form, associating with them alternations in culture and in perception. Within this paradigm of bias in communication systems, the intellectual challenge is to identify the distinguishing properties of particular media technologies such as books, cinema, and the Internet. As the physicist steps inside the world of atoms to understand them from the inside, so communications scholars, regarding television or magazines or billboards, must delve into their aesthetic properties in order to know them fundamentally and distinctively (McLuhan 1966).

As a minor premise, Innis (1952) argued that one form of communication tends to monopolize human knowledge and render other forms residual. Communications media never exist innocently and equally alongside one another. Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979), for example, documents the overriding significance of symbolic formation in her definitive work on the invention of printing. The printing press reformulated symbols at a historical watershed, fostering prescriptive truth and decentering papal authority by empowering the home and countryside with vernacular Bibles and Martin Luther's pamphlets. The ninth-century Carolingian and twelfth-century Gothic renascences were limited and transitory. The preservative power of Johannes Gutenberg's invention made the Renaissance permanent and total.

If oral cultures make time stand still, and print cultures foster empire and objectivism, the ongoing shift, from invention of the telegraph to early-twenty-first-century electronic culture, dislocates individuals from both space and history. It ruptures historical consciousness and pushes people into world citizenship, ill-equipped as they may be to accept that role. Without specific anchors in time and space, humans are ripe for electronic picking. Linear rationality facilitated by print is co-opted by mass media images. In sociological terms, the large-scale electronic media radically disconnect human beings from the mediating structures that serve as their everyday habitat—family, school, church, neighborhoods, and voluntary associations. Such primary groups lose their resonance.

The development of Internet technology marks another era of rapid growth and change in the media. Mass media technologies are converging into digital formats. Internet chat rooms, e-mail, multi-user domains (MUD), web-based publications, and the ability to hyperlink are producing new forms of human interaction. The 3-D virtual world is the innovative edge of these online technologies. In principle, interactive Internet technology gives people a voice and connects users directly without professionals or gatekeepers in between. Internet technologies can be democratic tools that serve people's everyday needs rather than those of special interest groups or the market.

Jacques Ellul developed the argument that technology is decisive in defining contemporary culture. Indeed not only productivity, but also economics, politics, and symbolic formations are dominated by the technological. In Ellul's (1969) framework, communications media represent the world of meaning in the technological system at large, the arena where the latter's character is most clearly exposed. Though exhibiting the structural elements of all technical artifacts, their particular identity as a technology inheres in their function as bearers of symbols. Information technologies thus incarnate the properties of technology while serving as agents for interpreting the meaning of the very phenomenon they embody.

Ellul calls communication systems the "innermost, and most elusive manifestation" of human technological activity (Ellul 1978, p. 216). All artifacts communicate meaning in some sense, but media instruments play this role exclusively. As the media sketch out the world, organize conversations, influence decisions, and impact self-identity, they do so with a technological cadence, massaging a technological rhythm and disposition into the human soul. With moral and social values disrupted and reoriented in the process, the ethics of communications technologies are an important arena for examining life in technological societies at present.

History of Communication Ethics

Historically communication ethics arose in conjunction with concerns related to print media, so that it requires work to extend the original developments to the more prominent digital technologies. Print news and the ethical standards for newspaper reporters were the first concerns of anything that could be called communication ethics. The harm that an unregulated press could do to society was first explicitly linked to ethical principles in North America and Europe during the 1890s, when critics began assessing journalism philosophically. These initial forays blossomed into the first systematic work in communication ethics during the 1920s in the United States. Four major books emerged from America's heartland during that decade, their authors among a Who's Who of journalism luminaries: Nelson Crawford's Ethics of Journalism (1924), Leon Flint's The Conscience of the Newspaper (1925), William Gibbons's Newspaper Ethics (1926), and Albert Henning's Ethics and Practices in Journalism (1932). These authors understood ethics as a scholarly enterprise and left a permanent legacy. In Europe also several ethical issues emerged during the early-twentieth-century. Sensationalism was considered contrary to the public service role of the newspaper. Freebies and junkets, scourged by media critics as early as 1870, were treated more systematically in the context of rising business competition. Truthfulness as a moral principle was abstracted for the first time from the practice of accurately reporting facts. During this period, a platform for the free press/fair trial debate was created, though it was one-sided in promoting the rights of the press. Together they carved out much of the structure that dominates journalism ethics across Europe and North America in the early-twenty-first century, and with some nuances, in various regions around the world.

The intellectual roots of the democratic press were formed when print technology was the exclusive option. Most of the heavyweights in communication ethics in industrialized democracies demonstrate like predilections for news, and news in its literary rather than electronic broadcast form. Yet extensive research remains to be done on various aspects of the news business: declining readership among youth and in urban cultures, production practices, multiculturalism, the problematic status of objectivity, technological innovation, newspaper credibility, hiring practices, and others. Most of the perpetual issues in media ethics—invasion of privacy, conflict of interest, sensationalism, confidentiality of sources, and stereotyping—get their sharpest focus in a print context. Meanwhile newspapers outside the mainstream have scarcely been considered.

But the context has changed. Television is the primary source of news for most people and information radio remains vital. Even research that emphasizes the news function tackles cases and problems from broadcasting, the wire service agencies, and documentaries, in addition to everyday reporting. And beyond the daily paper, magazines and instant books are increasingly prominent. In a more dramatic trend, reporting is being removed from its pedestal and treated in the same way as other mass media functions. News is now being integrated with other aspects of the information system, that is, to persuade, to entertain, and to serve bureaucracy. In fact, practitioners of journalism, advertising, entertainment, and data management are often part of the same institutions and encounter other media functions directly in their work.

Arguably heads of media corporations should ideally come from a news background, and clearly the demands on news operations have never been more intense. But it is empirically true that the media's role in persuasion, entertainment, and digital transmission has also become pervasive, socially significant, and ethically charged—thus the burgeoning research in the ethics of public relations, organizations, face-to-face encounters, the music business and cinema, libraries, book publishing, confidentiality in computer storage, fiction, new media technologies, the mass-mediated sports industry, and more.

The dark side of ethical research into this expanding field is faddishness and fragmentation. However there is hope that the widening spectrum will open new insights and fresh approaches to the substantive issues. Deception and economic temptation are common in all mass-mediated communication. Sexism and racism are deep-seated everywhere. Reporters often fail to recognize sensationalism in the news until they confront the difference between gratuitous violence and realism in entertainment media. Invasion of privacy, easily excused in news, becomes an insufferable evil when government agencies access confidential information from data banks without permission. The challenge is to demonstrate how ongoing ethical quandaries can be fruitfully examined across a diverse range of media technologies and functions.

Ethical Issues

In outlining an agenda for communication ethics in terms of global media technologies rather than print journalism alone, several issues emerge as primary. Each can profit from the past, though several are new or have such dramatic intensity in the early twenty-first century that thinking rooted in the communication ethics of the first half of the twentieth century is no longer directly relevant. Meanwhile the electronic media have achieved some important successes. The Internet makes it possible for people who disagree with government policies to unite and protest against them. The Montreal Protocol and the Landmine Ban Treaty, for example, could not have happened without new media technologies. Television was the stimulus for humanitarian intervention in Somalia and prison reform in the U.S. military. Strengthening the media's role in democracy is important for communication ethics, while identifying the negative dimensions that are already obvious.

DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE. An ethics of distributive or social justice is mandatory for understanding the communications revolution. The mainstream view of social justice centers on fairness. As a formal concept, justice means "the consistent application of the same norms and rules to each and every member of the social cluster to which the norms and rules apply" (Heller 1987, p. 6). But in the more dynamic and multidimensional terms of distributive justice, the overriding question is accessibility. Just distribution of products and services means that media access ought to be allocated to everyone according to essential needs, regardless of income or geographical location. Comprehensive information ought to be ensured to all parties without discrimination.

In contrast, the standard conception among privately owned media is allocating to each according to ability to pay. The open marketplace of supply and demand determines who obtains the service. Consumers are considered at liberty to express their preferences and to select freely from a variety of competing goods and services. The assumption is that decisions about allocating the consumer's money belong to the consumer alone as a logical consequence of the right to exercise social values and property rights without coercion from others.

An ethics of justice where distribution is based on need offers a radical alternative to the conventional view. Fundamental human needs are related to survival or subsistence. They are not frivolous wants or individual whims or deserts. Agreement is rather uniform on a list of most human necessities: food, housing, clothing, safety, and medical care. Everyone is entitled without regard for individual success to that which permits them to live humanely.

The electronic superhighway is swiftly becoming indispensable. Communications networks make the global economy run, they provide access to agricultural and health care information, they organize world trade, they are the channels through which international and domestic political discussions flow, and through them people monitor war and peace. Therefore as a necessity of life in a global order, communication systems ought to be distributed impartially, regardless of income, race, religion, or merit.

What is most important about Internet technology is not so much the availability of the computing device or the Internet line, but rather the ability to make use of the device and conduit for meaningful social practices. Those who cannot read, who have never learned to use a computer, and who do not know the major languages of software and Internet content will have difficulty getting online, much less using the Internet productively.

There is no reasonable likelihood that need-based distribution will ever be fulfilled by the marketplace itself. Technological societies have high levels of computer penetration, and nonindustrial societies do not. Digital technology is disproportionately concentrated in the developed world, and under the principle of supply and demand there are no structural reasons for changing those disproportions. Even in wired societies, the existence of Internet technology does not guarantee it will reach its potential as a democratic medium. There is a direct correlation between per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and Internet distribution. The geography of the digital world is not fundamentally different from that of the off-line world. The history of the communications media indicates that existing political and economic patterns will prevail; inequities in society lead to inequities in technology.

In the digital age—rooted in computers, the Internet, fiber optics, and communication satellites—ideally all types of persons will use all types of media services for all types of audiences. Therefore the normative guideline ought to be universal access, based on need. And universal service is the Achilles' heel of new technologies driven by engineering and markets. As the economic disparity between rich and poor countries grows, an information underclass exacerbates the problem because information is an important pathway to equality. An ethics of justice requires that the approach to media institutions should be modeled after schools, which citizens in democracies accept as their common responsibility. Without intervention into the commercial system on behalf of distributive justice, the world will continue to be divided into the technologically elite and those without adequate means to participate.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY. Indigenous languages and ethnicity have come into their own in the early-twenty-first century. Sects and religious fundamentalists insist on recognition. Culture is more salient at present than countries. Muslim immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the population in France and longstanding policies of assimilation are no longer credible. Thirty thousand Navajos live in Los Angeles isolated from their native nation and culture. The nomadic Fulani, searching for good pasture throughout sub-Saharan West Africa, are held together by clan fidelity, but their political future hangs in the balance. More than 30 percent of the information technicians working for the Microsoft Corporation in the United States come from India. In the early 1900s, 80 percent of immigrants to the United States were from Europe. Since the 1960s, the majority has come from Asia, Latin America, and developing countries in Africa. Rather than the melting pot of the last century, immigrants to the United States in the early-twenty-first century insist on maintaining their own cultures, religions, and languages. Identity politics has become dominant in world affairs since the Cold War, and ethnic self-consciousness is now considered essential to cultural vitality. As a result, social institutions such as the mass media are challenged to develop a healthy cultural pluralism instead of strident tribalism.

In order to integrate the new demands of cultural diversity into media practices and policies, an individualistic morality of rights must be modified by a social ethics of the common good. A commitment to cultural pluralism makes sense when the community is understood to be axiologically and ontologically superior to the individual. Human beings in this communitarian perspective do not disappear into the tribe, but their identity is constituted organically. Persons depend on and live through the social realm. Human beings are born into a sociocultural universe where values, moral commitments, and existential meanings are both presumed and negotiated. Thus in communitarian ethics, morally appropriate action intends community. Unless a person's freedom is used to help others flourish, that individual's well being is itself diminished.

Communitarianism as the basis for ethnic plurality moves media programming and organizations away from melting pot homogeneity and replaces it with the politics of recognition. The basic issue is whether democracies discriminate against their citizens in an unethical manner when major institutions fail to account for the identities of their members (Taylor et al. 1994). In what sense should the specific cultural and social features of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Buddhists, Jews, the physically disabled, or children publicly matter? Should not public institutions insure only that democratic citizens share an equal right to political liberties and due process without regard to race, gender, or religion? Charles Taylor considers the issue of recognizing multicultural groups politically as among the most urgent and vexing on the democratic agenda. Beneath the rhetoric is a fundamental philosophical dispute that Taylor calls the politics of recognition. As he puts it, "Nonrecognition or miscrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we own people. It is a vital human need" (Taylor et al. 1994, p.
26). This foundational issue regarding the character of cultural identity needs resolution for cultural pluralism to come into its own.

As one illustration of this framework, Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki (2000) indicate how the race dimension of cultural pluralism ought to move forward in the media. Race in the early-twenty-first-century United States remains a preeminent issue, and Entman and Rojeck's research indicates a broad array of white racial sentiments toward African Americans as a group. They emphasize not the minority of outright racists but the perplexed majority. On a continuum from comity (acceptance) to ambivalence to animosity and finally racism, a complex ambivalence most frequently characterizes the majority. "Whites bring complicated combinations of assumptions, misinformation, emotional needs, experiences, and personality traits to their thinking about race" (Entman and Rojecki 2000, p. 21). They may believe, for example, that blacks face discrimination and merit aid, but argue against welfare spending out of a suspicion of government programs. Ambivalence means that the majority of whites do not necessarily harbor deep-seated fears or resentment, but become conflicted about the best strategies to follow and sometimes lose their patience with the slow progress of change.

Correcting white ignorance and dealing with ambiguities hold the most promise for the media. The reality is, however, that the media serve as resources for shading ambivalence off into animosity. There is little evidence that television or other popular media pull their viewers toward comity. The white majority mostly experiences "media images of Blacks on welfare, of Black violence on local news, and of crude behavior—open sexuality and insolence—in entertainment television. ... The habits of local news—for example, the rituals in covering urban crime—facilitate the construction of menacing imagery" (Entmann and Rojecki 2000,
p. 34). Thus the media do little to enhance racial understanding among the ambivalent majority most open to it. Unfortunately the media do not provide the information that this important swing group needs to move policy and institutions toward cultural pluralism.

VIOLENCE. Violence in television and film has been a major ethical issue for decades. Internet technology has complicated the problem with hate speech and cyberterrorism.

In the United States, for example, studies have shown that by high school graduation the average seventeen-year-old will have seen 18,000 murders in the movies and on television. From the horrific shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 to similar tragedies in other states and countries before and since, teenagers who slaughter their classmates and teachers, and then kill themselves, are linked by debate or research to the culture of violence in which they live. While the United States leads the world in the amount of violence on television, television programming in all parts of the globe contains a great deal of violence, including a high percentage of guns as weapons and indifference to brutality, with the terrible consequences only hinted at or not depicted at all (Potter 1999). Gun-related deaths in the United States have reached the level of a public health epidemic.

Meanwhile media industries and civil libertarians opposed to censorship claim that no direct effects from violent programming have been documented or proved. In fact, this argument against curtailing violence in the media has long been the most persistent and persuasive. However the no-effects conclusion is no longer credible. Evidence of a positive association between media violence and real violence has been accumulating for at least forty years. Analyses during the 1990s of literally hundreds of studies on media violence verify a causal link between televised violence and real-life aggression with some of the strongest effects among young children. Research conducted for the American Medical Association (AMA) and the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the results of the exhaustive National Television Violence Study (1994–1998) support the same conclusion (Wilson et al. 2002).

Based on a review of the research, James Potter (1999) concludes that there exist both immediate and extended consequences from televised violence—with the caveat that the effects process is highly complex. In the short term, fear and habituation occur, but increased aggressiveness toward others is strongly supported also. The same is true for effects over a longer period: Research shows that exposure to violence in the media is linked to long-term negative effects such as increased aggression, a worldview based on fear, and desensitization to violence.

Violence is a serious ethical issue because it violates the persons-as-ends principle. In Immanuel Kant's standard formulation, people must treat all other people as ends-in-themselves and never as means only. In Judeo-Christian agape and feminist relational ethics, violence contradicts Other-regarding care. On multiple grounds, the gratuitous cheapening of human life to expand ratings is a reprehensible mistreatment of human beings.

From the persons-as-ends perspective, there is a special interest in the sexual violence so common in music video, horror movies (especially slasher films), pornographic literature, and video games. Sadistic, bloodthirsty torture in a sexual context is a particularly offensive form of dehumanization.

A new dimension of violence has emerged with hate speech on the Internet. In 1995, former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader Don Black established Stormfront, the first white supremacist Internet site. As access to the Internet became less expensive and creating web pages much simpler, the number of Internet sites and people visiting them grew exponentially. Mirroring this growth, Internet sites espousing various kinds of bigotry have multiplied dramatically, now numbering in the thousands. In the past, hate was promoted through crude graffiti and low quality pamphlets. Bulk mailings to even a few hundred people were difficult. But with the Internet, slick web sites devoted to hate are available to a potential audience of millions.

In the early-twenty-first century, though the KKK is more fragmented than at any time since World War II, its factions are using the Internet to revitalize the organization. The KKK sites maintain and defend the superiority of the white race, and warn against interracial marriage. Jews are vilified as Satan's people, and immigration is condemned as an uncontrolled plague. In addition, the number of Internet sites for the National Association for the Advancement of White People, founded by former KKK leader David Duke, has mushroomed and energized the so-called Klan without robes.

Numerous neo-Nazi Internet sites promote the anti-Semitic racism of Adolf Hitler, with the National Alliance being the most prominent Hitlerian organization in the United States. Jews are blamed for inflation, media brainwashing, and government corruption, with blacks depicted as criminals and rioters. A host of sites are devoted to Holocaust revisionism, denying the murder of Jews in World War II.

Internet sites of hate groups that claim religious legitimacy are flourishing as well. The Christian Identity site is virulently racist and anti-Semitic. The World Church of the Creator calls nonwhites physiologically subhuman. The site for White Aryan Resistance rails against the nonwhite birthrate. Other sites are anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim, or militantly anti-abortion.

Most organizations that monitor Internet hate activity do not advocate censorship. Education is seen as more effective than trying to silence bigots. With many moral problems in the media, some ethical theories are more appropriate than others, but hate speech on the Internet is contradicted by all major theories without exception. This across-the-board condemnation suggests that all personal, educational, and policy efforts to combat Internet hate speech are permissible, even mandatory, but obviously without the revenge and aggressiveness that contradict good ends.

Another kind of violence made possible by digital technology is cyberterrorism, that is, attacks on human targets abetted by machines and direct attacks on the telecommunications infrastructure. Financial transaction systems, electrical supply networks, military operations, police and emergency electronic devices, water purity management, air traffic control, and other essential services are vulnerable to computerized sabotage. All attempts at protecting societies through cybersecurity have tended to lead to increased surveillance, intrusions upon private data, and centralized government authority. High-level encryption technology is essential for protecting civil liberties and societies from terrorist attacks. Many security issues in advanced societies are still unclear and their resolution ill-defined. Should diagrams of nuclear power plants or city water systems, for example, be easily available to the public as they were before September 11, 2001? Resolving the conundrums requires as much open communication as possible, but the profusion of communication itself is sometimes counterproductive. In all aspects of cyberterrorism, a proactive citizenry and enlightened legislation are indispensable.

INVASION OF PRIVACY. Public opinion polls indicate that privacy is the premier issue in media ethics, at least in European and North American cultures. Intruding on privacy creates resentment and damages the credibility of the news media. But for all of the advances in privacy and tort law, ethicists consider legal definitions an inadequate foundation. How can the legally crucial difference between newsworthy material and gossip or voyeurism be reasonably determined?

Therefore while acknowledging legal distinctions and boundaries, the ethics of privacy is constructed from such moral principles as the dignity of persons and the redeeming social value of the information disclosed. Privacy is a moral good because it is a condition for developing a healthy sense of personhood. Violating it, therefore, violates human dignity. But privacy cannot be made absolute because people are cultural beings with responsibility in the social and political arena. People are individuals and therefore need privacy; people are social beings and therefore need public information about others. Because people are individuals, eliminating privacy would eliminate human existence as they know it; because people are social, elevating privacy to absolute status would likewise render human existence impossible. These considerations lead to the formal criterion that the intimate life space of individuals cannot be invaded without permission unless the revelation averts a public crisis or is of overriding public significance and all other means to deal with the issue have been exhausted.

From an ethical perspective, legal definitions of privacy beg several questions about the relationship between self and society. A legal right to privacy presumes a sharp line dividing an individual from the collective. An ethics of privacy prefers the richer connections between public and private advocated by social theorists since Alexis de Tocqueville, who have centered their analysis on a viable public life. While participating in theoretical debates over the nature of community, media ethicists have been applying moral principles to three areas: (a) the reporting of personal data on various social groups from innocent victims of tragedy to public officials to criminals; (b) protecting confidential information stored in computer data banks—medical, financial, library, educational, and personal records, for example, and (c) ubiquitous advertising that intrudes on our everyday activities.


The cosmopolitan reach of high-speed electronic technologies has made communication systems and institutions of global scope possible. Dealing with these new entities requires a technologically sophisticated, cross-cultural ethics commensurate with the worldwide reach of the media. In the process of identifying and responding to specific issues, communication and media ethics must make the questions raised by technology the central focus while repositioning them internationally. As true of professional ethics generally, communication ethics ought to become comparative in character. In place of its largely European and North American, gender-biased, and monocultural canon, media ethics of the future must be ecumenical, gender-inclusive, and multicultural.

A diversified comparative ethics, with a level playing field rooted in equal respect for all cultures, is by no means unproblematic and involves an act of faith. The claim that all cultures have something important to say to all human beings is an hypothesis that cannot be validated concretely. Yet it serves as an open horizon for moving comparative, transnational study forward in an interactive mode. Of the various types of applied and professional ethics, communication ethics has its roots most deeply in language, culture, and dialogue. In that sense, a multicultural style is required for its own authenticity.


SEE ALSO Communications Regulatory Agenices;Computer Ethics;Computer Viruses/Infections;Ellul, Jacques;Journalism Ethics;Information Society;Internet;Networks;Rhetoric of Science and Technology;Science, Technology, and Literature.


Bertrand, Claude-Jean. (2000). Media Ethics and Accountability Systems. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Christians, Clifford. (2000). "An Intellectual History of Media Ethics." In Media Ethics: Opening Social Dialogue, ed. Bart Pattyn. Leeuven, Belgium: Peeters. Gives a detailed account of the development of media ethics during the twentieth century in North America and Europe.

Christians, Clifford, and Michael Traber. (1977). Communication Ethics and Universal Values. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. A common commitment to truth-telling, human dignity, and nonviolence is documented from thirteen countries on four continents.

Crawford, Nelson. (1924). The Ethics of Journalism. New York: Knopf.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. (1979). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Structural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ellul, Jacques. (1969). Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, trans. Konrad Kellen, and Jean Lerner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. The mass media are described as agents of covert, sociological propaganda in contrast to overt, political propaganda.

Ellul, Jacques. (1978). "Symbolic Function, Technology and Society." Journal of Social and Biological Structure October: 207–218.

Entman, Robert, and Andrew Rojecki. (2000). The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flint, Leon Nelson. (1925). The Conscience of the Newspaper. New York: Appleton.

Gibbons, William Futhey. (1926). Newspaper Ethics: A Discussion of Good Practice for Journalists. Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Bros.

Hamelink, Cees J. (2000). The Ethics of Cyberspace. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Universal human rights as defined by the United Nations are presented as the standard for evaluating cyber technologies.

Heller, Agnes. (1987). Beyond Justice. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Henning, Albert F. (1932). Ethics and Practices in Journalism. New York: Long and Smith.

Innis, Harold. (1951). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Innis, Harold. (1952). Empire and Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lester, Paul M., and Susan D. Ross, eds. (2003). Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media, 2nd edition. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Lyon, David. (2001). Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

McLuhan, Marshall (1966). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. Florence, KY: Taylor and Francis Books. The psychological and sociological differences between oral and print societies are outlined historically.

Potter, W. James. (1999). On Media Violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Taylor, Charles K.; Anthony Appiah; Jürgen Habermas, et al. (1994). Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Taylor argues that the need for a voice from various ethnic groups is one of democracy's most difficult challenges at present.

Wilson, Barbara; Stacy L. Smith; W. James Potter; et al. (2002). "Violence in Children's Programming: Assessing the Risks." Journal of Communication 52: 5–35.

About this article

Communication Ethics

Updated About content Print Article