Introduction to Mass Media/Media Law and Ethics
Not a single organization in creation has been systematized without the utilization of some form of regulations or a governing body. The food industry has the Food and Drug Administration. American professional football players have the National Football League officials. The United States of America has the Constitution. The same goes for the media, both print and digital. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created to govern the systematic functions of each section of the media. The most heavily government regulated entities are the broadcast media. Television and radio media professionals are subject to a host of rules and regulations that yield hefty fines if violated. The print media, such as newspapers and magazines, remain largely unregulated; however, issues involving such offenses like slander can result in large payouts to people that sue the publications. The internet is also essentially unregulated, but many of the same rules apply to certain distributors of information.
Policies and Laws
The FCC was formed by the Communications Act of 1934, a comprehensive framework for communications in the United States. A policy is a course of action adopted by an organization for the sake of expediency. Without the Communications Act of 1934 to serve as a policy for the media world, there would be no clear, written guide for media professionals to understand their regulatory boundaries. Aside from the few concepts that are unprintable or illegal to air, broadcast and print journalists are free to write and say as they please. The serious professionals pride themselves on the freedoms granted to them by the First Amendment, especially the “freedom of the press” section. There was a time, however, when some journalists did not enjoy this freedom. The United States was prepared to go to war with France, and President John Adams used dirty politics to ensure that the United States would come out on top.
President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 into law. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were four laws which gave the government the power to imprison and deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and made it illegal for American citizens to “print, utter, or publish… any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government. This was one of the first times a law had been passed that tested the limits of freedom of speech and press. The Sedition Act was aimed at journalists and editors of Democratic-Republican newspapers because their criticism of Federalist policies was considered disloyal. Congress during that time was Federalist-controlled, so the four laws were passed with ease. Criticism against the group, however, was largely increased after the laws were passed. This led to the Federalists’ loss in the 1800 election. After their defeat, the acts were either retracted or allowed to expire.
Generally, governing bodies create, draft and pass laws based on the standard for the time period, region, public, etc. In 1798, the public was accepting of the fact that a certain behavior (producing content that criticized the governing body) was punishable by law. Therefore, the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts were tolerable. Today, however, the same process would be much more difficult, if not impossible. The citizens of the United States pride themselves on being free to say and do as they please as long as it is in the confines of the reasonable laws set in place by the government. Many countries do not enjoy the same rights. The fact that the United States views freedom of speech in an entirely different light today is an example of a standard.
Standards are principles considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison. American standards for print media in 1798 disregarded any negative articles about the government and prosecuted the authors and editors. American standards for print media in 2013, however, consider freedom of speech one of the most important rights that an American citizen can exercise. Criticism of the American government, as long as there are no elements of slander, which will be discussed later in the chapter, is completely acceptable today. In fact, it is praised if done in an appropriate manner with adequate, factual supporting arguments.
What is Ethical Journalism?
Some people are under the impression that the print media is completely unregulated and writers have no regard for the people they sometimes slander or the chaos that fabricated stories often create. While some journalists have been found guilty of falsifying information to create “juicier” stories (i.e. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “Jimmy’s World”), there are still many writers who produce nothing but the truth in order to maintain journalistic integrity. By abiding by a code of ethics, a code adopted by organizations to assist members in understanding the difference between 'right' and 'wrong' and in applying that understanding to their decisions, journalists keep their integrity intact. The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics includes a list of dos and don'ts in regards to being accountable, minimizing harm, and acting independently.
However, with the addition of so many technological advances over the years, journalistic integrity has drastically decreased. It has become much easier to contact sources. A quick email or phone call has replaced traveling to the source’s home or place of business. It is possible that this ease of access has made some journalists lazy. When faced with an unanswered email or a constantly ringing cell phone, rather than take the next step or simply print or air the phrase “declined to comment,” some journalists have resorted to embellishing their stories with half-truths and whole lies. Completely neglecting to produce true information is a far stretch from expressing how one feels about a certain topic or person. In the print media world, the form of writing that includes biased comments and subjective remarks is called an opinion editorial.
Bias is a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question. In short, it is a judgment based on personal opinion. The opposite of biased writing, unbiased, is expected in journalistic work. Reporters are expected to remain objective and report only facts, not opinions. Biased writing leaves no opportunity for readers to make their own inferences or judgments. When a writer includes his or her opinions in an article, readers are to assume that the work is from an objective point of view. They do not make the distinction between truth and opinion. Then the writer’s work could possibly lead the readers to draw the same conclusions, and this could make for a largely one-sided publication if done repetitively by the same author or by a few authors.
A large amount of today’s most successful print and broadcast journalists have made their claim to fame through editorials and other opinionated materials like blogs and vlogs. Their extremely biased statements and assumptions about the government, other members of the media and a host of other topics and people are acceptable because of a combination of the standards set in place by modern-day American culture and the government. Though some print and broadcast media professionals pride themselves on their ability to remain morally just by American culture’s standards, some air every broadcast and print every article with every intention of breaking the barriers of ethics. Ethical judgment is a close call in the media world because a multitude of ideas and concepts fall in various rankings for different people and organizations on the ethics scale.
Ethics are the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture. When individuals make the decision to become a part of the media world, they must be sure to operate with a certain degree of uprightness and morality. This includes labeling commentary and analysis. Any information that is taken out of context because of a lack of a certain acknowledgement from the reporter falls on the shoulders of the reporter and should not be considered a misunderstanding on the reader’s behalf. There should be a clear distinction between news reporting and promotion or advocacy. In many cases, writers publish information with their support clearly in favor of a company, person, group or organization, which leads readers to believe that the subject is much more than what it really is.
As a member of the media who complies with the rules of conduct recognized in the media world, individuals should have no problem completing their jobs with good faith. Good faith means to be in compliance with standards of decency and honesty. Regardless of the outcome of an action, a writer, producer, photographer, etc. should always operate with the idea that he or she can stand firmly behind his or her work. The general presumption of a media professional’s audience is that the individual dealt with the matter in a manner by making an ethical decision that is honest and fair so as not to trample upon the rights of any included parties. In the media, certain factors play a big role in making ethical decisions. Two very important factors are impartiality and objectivity.
Impartiality and Objectivity in the Media World
As consumers of the media, the public has every right to assume that everything produced by a media source, unless otherwise noted, is true and delivered from an impartial and objective point of view. To be impartial is to be unbiased, fair and just. In fact, impartial is a synonym of unbiased. Many times, media professionals publish work after completing only one fact check or having conducting just one interview. This is not impartial work. If a story involves two parties, it is only fair for the reporter to report both sides of the story. In the case that one party does not respond, the reporter must publish that he or she contacted the source multiple times and received no word back. This serves as proof that the reporter possesses journalistic integrity and that he or she did his or her best to write from an impartial point of view.
Much like impartiality, objectivity is an element of writing that is means it is not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice. The writing is strictly based on facts if it is objective. Without objectivity, an author risks causing readers to believe that untrue information, such as simple a simple opinion, is in fact true. An objective writer will support the open exchange of views, even those that he or she may find distasteful or repugnant. Additionally, he or she avoids stereotyping. Writing is in no way objective if it includes anything that is degrading or demeaning to a certain social status, group with physical disabilities, sexual orientation, geography, ethnicity, religion, age, gender or race. Whether or not the author has any issues with a particular group of people, it is never okay for him or her to impose his or her values on the publication’s readers. It is also wise to maintain a degree of objectivity by avoiding any hybrids of news and advertising. Advertising that resembles news may confuse readers and viewers and cause ethics issues with the news source.
There are a host of ethics issues that can arise in the world of professional media, but some of the most important issues are those concerning defamation, libel and slander. These three terms are often confused with each other. Libel and slander fall under defamation. Defamation is the false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another, as by slander or libel. In the media world, reputation is extremely important. For some, it is all they have going for them. When an individual’s reputation has been tarnished, the party that is responsible, if it is not the person him- or herself, must answer to the law. Defamation is an issue that appears in courts very often. Even if a person did not intend the meaning that consumers inferred, he or she is still liable for the defamation of the subject’s character. Whatever an ordinary reader or view makes of a situation is what will hold in court. Anything that hints at a person, group, organization or culture being unfaithful, lazy, corrupt, financially troubled, criminal, dishonest, or incompetent is grounds for a defamation suit.
Libel and slander both fall under defamation. Though both terms denote false statements that damage a person’s reputation, the difference between the two is quite simple. Libel is the use of false, defamatory claims about someone in written or printed form. Slander is the use of false, defamatory claims about someone committed orally or in any other transient form. Slander, often used informally as a synonym for defamation, is committed more often because people tend to give more thought to written words which are attached to their name rather than the things that come out of their mouths.
When individuals say or write untrue statements about others, they have usually either flat-out lied about the person or invaded his or her privacy to obtain information and gotten it wrong. Because of the great strides the world has made in regards to technological advancement, information, whether true or untrue, virtually travels at the speed of light. Libelous, defamatory remarks used to be followed by a simple retraction in newspapers. Today, information is published in magazines, newspapers, books, on websites, blogs, vlogs, and much more. This plethora of ways to access information has resulted in the need for an individual to have someone who represents him or her.
The invasion of one’s privacy is unfortunately a common, yet illegal, practice used in attaining information for some publications. Privacy is the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one's private life or affairs. There are a few surprising facts about how far a media professional can go to obtain information. For example, society has little to no right of privacy from the media in a public place. Many times, when commercials on television show a busy street with people going about their business, viewers assume that everyone was told that they would be on television. In some cases, they may have been told. However, it is not illegal for them to be unaware of the cameras. If everyone in a public area can see you, the media has the right to write about individuals, what the individuals did, and take photos of the individuals as well.
The fact that media professionals can photograph and write about people in public is simply a factor of media politics. Politics are the practices or professions of conducting affairs in organizations. Some media professionals, however, go beyond the boundaries set by the government and by the media’s code of ethics. When an individual believes that his or her privacy has been invaded or that defamatory statements about him or her have been published or aired, he or she often calls upon the aid of a public relations officer to defend him or her.
Media Regulation and Censorship
The first amendment is an amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing the right of free expression; includes freedom of assembly and freedom of the press and freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Verbatim, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Many feel that the first amendment is abridged by copyright, the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc. Though copyright and the first amendment both seek to promote the creation and dissemination of move diverse works, they use significantly different means to achieve those goals.
Media professionals must acknowledge that their position requires them to operate with fairness. For this reason, the fairness doctrine was created. The fairness doctrine imposes affirmative responsibilities on a broadcaster to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints. Differing viewpoints often cause debates to become heated. In that case, parties involved in a dispute may often contact a media outlet in order to speak their truth. In one case, for example, a political candidate may join a radio station one morning to make a speech. The fairness doctrine requires that any candidate with an opposing viewpoint be granted the opportunity to speak on the show as well.
In addition to the fairness doctrine, broadcasters are subject to the rules and regulations of the doctrine of prior restraint. The doctrine of prior restraint holds that the first amendment forbids the federal government to impose any system of prior restraint, with certain limited exceptions, in any area of expression that is within the boundaries of that amendment.
Media ethics include having and utilizing a set of morals. Morality in journalism, both broadcast and print, includes publishing accurate and inclusive information. It also includes honesty, which was discussed earlier in the chapter and referred to as good faith. One of a lack of morality in journalism is payola, a secret or private payment in return for the promotion of a product, service, etc., through the abuse of one's position, influence, or facilities. For instance, if a radio personality constantly says that a certain restaurant is his or her favorite place and tells listeners to check out the facility, it is legal. However, if it is found out that the person was receiving money from the manager in exchange for on-air promotion, this is considered payola, which is very illegal.
A second immoral act that is sometimes committed in the professional media world is the act of lying about sources. In the event that a story’s sources are in fact legitimate, but they only spoke to the media on the grounds that they remain anonymous, the story was published in a legal manner. In this case, shield laws protect both the author and the sources. Shield laws are statutes affording a privilege to journalists not to disclose in legal proceedings confidential information or sources of information obtained in their professional capacities. One of the most famous instances of the shield laws at work is the Judith Miller story. Judith Miller is an American journalist who was involved in the Plame Affair. As a journalist at the New York Times, Judith Miller refused to reveal her sources concerning a story about Valerie Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson.
Ethics in Photojournalism
Ethics in media have as much to do with spoken and written word as they do with photos. The age old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words” has never been truer than when it is concerning journalism. It is easy to tell a story or write a story to inform an audience, but the article comes to life when it is accompanied with photos. However, just like any other aspect of journalism, photography can be used in a manner for which it was not intended.
Sometimes, images are used to manipulate audiences. For example, consider the photo of OJ Simpson used on the Newsweek and Time magazine covers during his trial. His mug shot was printed plainly and unaltered on the Newsweek magazine cover. However, Time magazine, which is known for controversial covers, used a low resolution copy of the photo and added a dark fade around the edges. The photo makes OJ Simpson look sinister and causes readers to make inferences about the athlete and the allegations against him before even reading the article.
The manipulation of photos is not the only example of unethical photojournalism. In some cases, photos can be used in situations where they are not needed or are inappropriately graphic. Some examples are the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, war photos from Afghanistan, and the victims of the Boston bombing. To some journalists, the publication of war photos depicting gruesome injuries is necessary to keep the reality of war fresh in the minds of the readers. In other words, wars have an “out of sight, out of mind” effect on many people who are not involved or do not live in the country in which they take place. People also become apathetic to photos that simply portray soldiers in formation or in uniform. Some journalists argue that the usage of photos of soldiers and civilians with missing limbs or bloody torsos make for a “juicier” story or play on the heartstrings of readers. However true this is, the people in the photos may have families and friends who would rather not endure the pain of seeing such horrific illustrations of their loved ones. lion.k.sugumar
The Future of Media Law and Ethics
As the fifth estate continues to grow, more and more members of the fourth estate lose credibility. Biased reporting and outright lies in broadcasts have given the press a bad reputation. The future of media law and ethics seems shaky as more loopholes are created; however, the virtually unregulated industry is still held accountable to the unwritten code of ethics, even as the digitization of many media outlets results in fewer members of the professional media.
Digitization, which means to convert data to digital form for use in a computer, has given many amateur media operators the idea that they are professionals. The works that they present on the Internet, which can appear to be professional, are sometimes embarrassingly erroneous and invalid. This, in turn, causes society to lump all media outlets together, describing them all with words such as deceptive, unreliable and incredible.
New media technologies such as blogs and microblogs, photo sharing sites, digital storytelling, machinima, cloud computing, podcasts, writing communities and Google tools have made it possible for technological communication to advance beyond any of their creators’ imaginations. Users and developers have continued to operate and expand upon certain media creations to the point where the future of media law and ethics concerning revamped and completely new media technologies will be a matter of exponential significance in the media world.
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 - four laws which gave the government the power to imprison and deport aliens considered dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States and made it illegal for American citizens to print, utter, or publish and false, scandalous, and malicious writing about the government
Bias - a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question
Code of Ethics - a code adopted by organizations to assist members in understanding the difference between "right" and "wrong" and in applying that understanding to their decisions
Copyright - the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc
Defamation - the false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another, as by slander or libel
Digitization - to convert data to digital form for use in a computer
Doctrine of Prior Restraint - a doctrine that holds that the first amendment forbids the federal government to impose any system of prior restraint, with certain limited exceptions, in any area of expression that is within the boundaries of that amendment
Ethics - the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture
Fairness Doctrine - a doctrine that imposes affirmative responsibilities on a broadcaster to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints
Federal Communications Commission - the commission created to govern the systematic functions of each section of the media
Fifth Estate - refers to media outlets such as bloggers, who are not the mainstream media outlet
First Amendment - an amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing the right of free expression; includes freedom of assembly and freedom of the press and freedom of religion and freedom of speech
Fourth Estate - the people and organizations that report the news
Good Faith - to be in compliance with standards of decency and honesty
Libel - the use of false, defamatory claims about someone in written or printed form
Payola - a secret or private payment in return for the promotion of a product, service, etc., through the abuse of one's position, influence, or facilities
Policy - a course of action adopted by an organization for the sake of expediency
Politics - the practices or professions of conducting affairs in organizations
Privacy - the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one's private life or affairs
Shield laws - statutes affording a privilege to journalists not to disclose in legal proceedings confidential information or sources of information obtained in their professional capacities
Slander - the use of false, defamatory claims about someone committed orally or in any other transient form
Standards - principles considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison
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