Communication Journalism Ethics
by
Donald Matheson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0152

Introduction

There has been a normative turn in journalism studies and, more generally, communication theory, which has led to renewed and wider academic interest in the ethics of journalism. The longstanding focus of liberal theories on autonomy and the focus of applied ethics theories on professional duty and the consequences of actions have been pushed wider since the early 2000s. Journalism ethics has become imagined as much more of a social achievement, negotiated with communities and motivated by ideas of living well together and quality public discourse. As a consequence, some of the big questions are now about virtue, justice, caring for others, and dialogue. There has been a flowering of thinking about what good journalists do and what contribution they make to public life, which is providing both practitioners and those who watch them with further resources to reflect on journalism’s role in society. This new thinking is partly a response to the many crises in journalism and public life, which direct attention to the legitimacy of Western media and political institutions. But it goes deeper. The Enlightenment imaginary of free and rational individuals is no longer held sufficient by most journalism ethicists as a guide to good practice. Ethics has also become better connected, through theories of community, public life, and social justice, with critical sociology and cultural studies. The old sociological critique that ethics is a form of professional self-justification of power or is marginal alongside structural concerns about the media has shifted to a concern about how the institutions and texts of the media position people in relation to each other. The sections on the Media and Moral Publics and on Globalized Media Ethics are testament to the field’s reach well beyond questions of individual professional decision-making. These concerns also give communication ethics greater relevance to wider thinking about justice, democracy, and social change.

Core Texts

Four excellent collections of essays have been published since 2009. Each differs a little in focus, but all are wide in their scope and all provide overviews of the field. Wilkins and Christians 2009 reflects the major thinkers and debates in US journalism scholarship. Meyer 2010 is authoritative not just in the quality of the essays but in setting the terms of current debates over journalism’s ethical frameworks. Couldry, et al. 2013, from the United Kingdom, and Fortner and Fackler 2011, from the United States, gather together scholarship that pushes the bounds of journalism ethics toward questions of community and public life. Clifford Christians’s work (e.g., Christians 2011) has been instrumental in that scholarship and is central to understanding changes in the field. The recent flurry of titles means many older books and papers are now superseded.

  • Christians, Clifford G. 2011. Journalism ethics in theory and practice. In The handbook of communication ethics. Edited by George Cheney, Steve May, and Debashish Munshi, 190–203. New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    This influential media ethicist has called repeatedly for an individualist professional ethics of journalism to be revised, given journalism’s importance in community and culture. His ethics calls for journalists to commit to basic moral norms of social justice, nonviolence, and respect; and to truth as an interpretive act of disclosure.

  • Couldry, Nick, Mirca Madianou, and Amit Pinchevski, eds. 2013. Ethics of media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137317513E-mail Citation »

    A collection of papers about the moral boundaries of journalism and mediated public life by media theorists and philosophers of public discourse. The papers draw often on cultural and political theory and focus on the implications of contemporary media for public life rather than on journalism practice.

  • Fortner, Robert S., and P. Mark Fackler, eds. 2011. The handbook of global communication and media ethics. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444390629E-mail Citation »

    A two-volume collection of essays that typifies the more rounded approach in contemporary communication ethics, placing journalism within the wider mediascape as well as specific cultural contexts. Volume 1’s discussion of key contemporary ethical questions is complemented by case studies in Volume 2 from a range of countries.

  • Meyer, Christopher, ed. 2010. Journalism ethics: A philosophical approach. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays on current thinking in journalism ethics, which are almost all excellent. Together, they provide a foundational account of what makes journalism ethical, so that the book works as a higher-level textbook, a reflective analysis of the state of journalism, and an intervention on many issues.

  • Wilkins, Lee, and Clifford G. Christians, eds. 2009. The handbook of mass media ethics. New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    A high-quality collection of essays, combining reflections on ethical principles with analyses of contemporary issues in ethics. The book is particularly strong as a survey of current journalism ethics scholarship from the United States. It represents US journalism ethics after two decades of challenges to liberal individualism.

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