The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics – Book Review, by Douglas Chalmers

Although primarily aimed at the American market, the Handbook of Mass Media Ethics is a valuable resource for anyone teaching the Ethics of Journalism and (time permitting) for practitioners of journalism.

Consisting of almost 30 chapters categorised into four sections – which look at ethical foundations, professional practice. concrete issues and institutional considerations, teachers of the subject are almost guaranteed to find something of use for aspiring journalists and media professionals to agonize over.

The chapters include a short hstory of media ethics in the United States, why diversity is an ethical issue, photojournalism ethics, violence and perspectives on pornography and media ownership in a corporate age.

The book is an extremely rich source of materials – although it does vary in quality and register – some chapters aimed at the academic field and some more targeted towards day-to-day work.

In John Ferré’s A Short History of Media Ethics in the United States, I was amazed to discover the maxim of a popular journalism textbook of 1894 to be that: “Truth in essentials, imagination in non-essentials is considered a legitimate rule of action in every office…….The paramount object is to make an interesting story.”

Similarly, I do not think that even when [then National Heritage Secretary] David Mellor was uttering threats of ‘last chance saloons’ at the press, that he had to contend with newspapers that advocated the assassination of presidents, as William Hearst’s New York Journal did with President William McKinley, arguing that: “Institutions, like men, will last until they die, and if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”

From a historical perspective, Stephen Ward, in Truth and Objectivity, examines the “comparatively recent” rise of the concept of objectivity in reporting. Quoting Henry Luce, of Time Magazine (“Show me a man who thinks he’s objective, and I’ll show you a liar.”), he unfurls an interesting narrative of how the concept evolved, although his remedy – an approach he refers to as 'pragmatic objectivity’ in the end does not seem to offer the solution it may appear to first promise.

David Craig’s Justice as a Journalistic Value and Goal considers how justice as an ethical value can be used to critique and improve coverage of topics in which justice is an important dimension of the story itself.

Essentially, he suggests this would lead to the good practice of questioning how power is exercised in professions or in corporations, for instance, and in then placing journalistic priorities on the ‘needs of the disadvantaged’, seeing the journalist’s role as ‘serving society’ and not simply ‘presenting information’.

In an interesting chapter, Why Diversity is an Ethical Issue, Ginny Whitehouse juxtaposes cultural relativism (which she finds lacking) against a more positive approach that she entitles 'cultural pluralism' – an approach where universal values can be successfully contextualised. She acknowledges that this is a difficult area, and illustrates some problems that arise out of the issues of positive and negative stereotyping, finally suggesting some areas for further fruitful research.

The power of the photographer is examined by Julianne Newton in a chapter on Photojournalism Ethics. Basing her approach on the belief that “seeing is the primary way we know”, she looks at two categories of photojournalism ethics – the process of capturing the picture and the perceived meaning of the picture. In doing so, Newton uses a good example of the significance of editors’ choices of front page photographs and captions during the early days of the Iraq war to illustrate the dilemma.

Turning to the issues of PR in The Ethics of Advocacy: Moral Reasoning in the Practice of Public Relations, Sherry Baker examines the thorny issues that beset this area, and argues for the benefit of an approach based on the TARES test – five principles for ethical persuasion: Truthfulness (of the message), Authenticity (of the persuader), Respect (for the persuadee), Equity (of the appeal) and Social Responsibility (for the common good).

Continuing on thorny issues, Wendy Wyatt and Kris E. Bunton examine the issue of pornography versus eroticism in their study, Perspectives on Pornography Demand an Ethical Critique. This is a very interesting and well thought-out chapter, although it struck me as being a bit out of place in the overall collection, being rather more academic than practitioner-focussed compared to most of the other chapters. It is, however, a worthwhile read.

Violence, by Patrick Lee Plaisance, is a very partisan, although well-argued, piece which outlines the case against the amount of violence in the media, based on the perceived impact of such material on society, particularly the young. Again, a very interesting piece but, like the Wyatt and Bunton approach to pornography, perhaps rather academic and less amenable to application by practicing journalists or media workers.

An interesting approach, that I had not considered in detail before was that of Peace Journalism. Explained as “when editors and reporters make choices that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict”, the author, Seow Ting Lee, gives useful categorisations of what is referred to as a ‘War Journalism Approach’ and contrasts this with what might be entitles a ‘Peace Journalism Approach’. Implications for language use in reporting are also considered.

In another area that was totally new to myself, S. Holly Stocking introduces Buddhist Moral Ethics, looking at the similarity and differences this approach shares with Traditional Media Ethics, and argues that there is much more commonality between Buddhist ethics and the ‘Virtue Ethic’ approach in moral and philosophical reasoning than might be found with traditional utilitarianism or Kantian reasoning – both key approaches in journalistic ethics.

Again in consideration of Feminist Media Ethics – another area new to myself, Linda Steiner asks whether men and women actually engage in the same modes of ethical reasoning. In doing so, she considers the argument that a successful feminist ethics would be based on an ‘ethics of care’ and echoes Martin Bell's call for a ‘journalism of attachment’ that “cares as well as knows”.

In a chilling chapter Media in Evil Circumstances,  Fortner considers the use of the media to aid genocide in areas such as Rwanda, Nazi Germany and Serbia. Quoting the maxim that “every person killed in this war (Serbia) was first killed in the newsrooms”, he considers three approaches to reporting of such conflicts: True Neutralisty, Socially Constructed Neutrality and Attachment, to reduce the involvement of the press in such evil.

Finally, McAllister and Proffitt consider the dangers of Media Ownership in a Corporate Age and consider how the problem of ‘ownership undermining democracy’ may be combated. While they argue for media owners to adopt a ‘public sphere’ approach to news reporting, and argue that media policy changes are needed to deal with what is effectively a ‘structural issue’, they are rather short on specific remedies for those individuals already working in such circumstances.

Overall, this is a very interesting and useful book and the notes above only deal with some of the chapters. Its price means that it’s more likely to end up as a library addition in a university rather than as an individual purchase for those working in the field, which is a pity. It’s purchase for newsrooms, however, would be well recommended.

Douglas Chalmers is a media and journalism lecturer in the Department of Cultural Business at Glasgow Caledonian University.

The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics , [edited] by Lee Wilkins and Clifford G. Christians , is published by Routledge. ISBN: 0805861920. Price: £37.99.