In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Models
  • International Studies
  • New Research Directions

Communication Media Ethics
Clifford Christians
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0008


As with professional ethics as a whole, media ethics is divided into three parts: metaethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics. Metaethics addresses the validity of theories, the nature of good and evil in media programming, the question of universals, problems of relativism, and the rationale for morality in a secular age. Normative ethics fuses practice with principles. It concerns the best ways for professionals to lead their lives and the standards to be promoted. Normative ethics concentrates on the justice or injustice of societies and institutions. Descriptive ethics uses social science methodologies to report on how ethical decision-making actually works in journalism, advertising, public relations, and entertainment. Normative ethics has received the most attention in media ethics, but for media ethics to flourish, research and teaching need to be strong on all three levels.

General Overviews

Each monograph or book covers the field of media ethics in a different way, and a combination of three or four such sources needs to be read for an adequate understanding of the state of the art. Fitzpatrick and Bronstein 2006 focuses on public relations, and Merrill 1997, Ward 2004, and Wilkins and Coleman 2005 focus on journalism. Johannesen, et al. 2008 encompasses communication studies broadly, and the others review the public media. Ward 2004 and Leslie 2003 use intellectual history as their methodology, with Christians 2008 also historical in approach, but only since 1980. Wilkins and Coleman 2005 describes the profession using interviews and a survey, with the others performing a content analysis of the relevant literature.

  • Christians, Clifford G. 2008. Media ethics in education. Journalism and communication monographs 9.4: 179–221.

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    An essay review of the scholarship in media ethics since 1980. The books, articles, and research projects are summarized under five categories: theory, social philosophy, religious ethics, technology, and truth.

  • Fitzpatrick, Kathy, and Carolyn Bronstein, eds. 2006. Ethics in public relations: Responsible advocacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    The essays compiled here center on the ethics of advocacy. How can persuasion be done responsibly rather than as manipulation? The issues in both public relations theory and practice are identified in defining what responsibility means.

  • Gordon, A. David, John Michael Kittross, John C. Merrill, and Carol Reuss. 1999. Controversies in media ethics. 2d ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

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    An overview of media ethics in general, but focuses on real-life issues and the specific responsibilities of those who work in the various forms of mass media. The authors debate two sides of the issue, and John Merrill offers commentary.

  • Johannesen, Richard L., Kathleen S. Valde, and Karen E. Whedbee. 2008. Ethics in human communication. 6th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

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    This book covers the communication spectrum—from interpersonal to organizational to mass media. It presents five major perspectives: political, dialogical, religious, situational, and humanistic. A chapter on basic issues applies the theoretical material, and it includes chapter-length analyses of feminist ethics and of intercultural communication.

  • Leslie, Larry Z. 2003. Mass communication ethics: Decision making in postmodern culture. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon.

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    Comprehensive introduction to ethical theory from classical Greece to Habermas. Although theories are historical and contextual, studying theorists sharpens students’ thinking, illustrates processes for complex problem solving, and defines concepts that continue to be useful. Applications are made to journalism, advertising, and public relations.

  • Merrill, John C. 1997. Journalism ethics: Philosophical foundations of news media. New York: St. Martin’s.

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    This is a mega-issue book, considering the foundations of journalism rather than case studies or daily routines. It focuses on truth, individualism, responsibility, fairness, propaganda, and ethical theory. It teaches students who are journalism majors to ask good questions and think long-term.

  • Ward, Stephen J. A. 2004. The invention of journalism ethics: The path to objectivity and beyond. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press.

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    A detailed historical review of journalistic objectivity, understood by the press as a moral imperative. The author concludes that the traditional notion of objectivity developed a century ago is no longer defensible philosophically, and argues for a pragmatic objectivity that is close to common sense.

  • Wilkins, Lee, and Renita Coleman. 2005. The moral media: How journalists reason about ethics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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    Based on extensive original research, the authors provide an analysis of decision-making in journalism and advertising, using the Defining Issues Test as the research instrument. Written for both academics and practitioners, The Moral Media examines the quality of ethical reasoning in a professional environment.

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