Media Ethics, Part II

This is the second blog post regarding media ethics for my Mass Communication class at LWIT. In this post I’ll be drawing from and discussing the following three resources:

  1. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (I’m not going to discuss this on it’s own, but I will make reference to it.)
  2. Weekday on KUOW: The Moral Dilemma of Advertising
  3. Project Censored

Illegal Advertisements: Who is Responsible?

I’ll start with “The Moral Dilemma of Advertising.” This podcast is an 45-minute-long segment from KUOW radio. In 2011, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn pulled government ads from the Seattle Weekly and asked the newspaper and its parent company Village Voice Media to prevent ads for underage prostitution from appearing on backpage.com, another subsidiary of Village Voice. Prompting this action on the part of the mayor was the fact that in 2010, twenty-two Seattle-area children were recovered from prostitution who had been advertised through backpage.com. The mayor’s suggestion for how to fix this was to require people to show up in person at the Seattle Weekly office in order to place an ad on the website.

Mike Sealy, the editor-in-chief of the Seattle Weekly responded by saying that although ads in the printed version of the Seattle Weekly are pre-screened, those on the website are not. However, Village Voice Media does have a team of people who comb through the site and report suspicious ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Since Backpage is a large, nationwide operation, not just a local one, Mr. Sealy was skeptical that the mayor’s plan would become reality.

The mayor’s opinion was that we need to prevent harm, not just catch it after the fact. Mr. Sealy countered by saying that Backpage helps police catch criminals, and while on the one hand they don’t want to encourage criminal activity on the site, on the other hand restricting who can post ads on the site would merely make the criminals harder to find.

After concluding the interviews with Mike McGinn and Mike Sealy, the podcast introduces two new interviewees: Michele Earl Hubbard, a lawyer specializing in media law, and Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Hubbard pointed out that there are no legal obligations for newspapers taking advertisements. That was why Mayor McGinn had to ask the newspaper to cooperate; he could command them to. Furthermore, in online media, the advertiser is considered the publisher of their ad, so the owner of the website bears no responsibility for the content of the advertisement. Professor Kirtley agreed with this and questioned whether the mayor was acting unethically by pulling government ads from the Seattle Weekly as a way to pressure them. Her opinion was that we shouldn’t let the government be the morality police. If we give the government control over the media, it stifles free speech. Ms. Hubbard’s conclusion was that the government should really be going after advertisers, not the publisher of the newspaper or website.

Personally, I’m opposed to all forms of sex trafficking, but I think I have to agree with Professor Kirtley here. Government regulation of media outlets is not the way to solve the problem. I do believe, however, that although media outlets have no legal obligations regarding the advertisements they allow or disallow, they do have an ethical one.

Unheard Stories

Every once in a while I’ll see someone post a news story on Facebook with the comment “Why wasn’t this reported in the mainstream media?” Generally, I like to give the mainstream media the benefit of the doubt. There’s a lot of news out there, so they can’t report on everything. But I also know they’re not perfect, and at times exhibit bias or fall prey to censorship. This is where Project Censored comes in. Project Censored is a website that collects news from independent sources, news that has been misrepresented or ignored in the mainstream media. I’m not going to discuss the individual news stories here—you can check them out yourself—but I will discuss the ethics of news reporting.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says, “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” There are several factors however that can prevent this from happening. Because the news stations are backed by large corporations, there may be conflicts of interest. That is, the corporations may censor news stories that reflect badly upon themselves, or recast them in a different light. That’s why the Code of Ethics says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and “Disclose unavoidable conflicts,” and “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

Another issue is the pressure of status quo. News stations report on hurricanes and tornadoes every year, but not on the increasing acidity of the ocean. Why is that?

Now I don’t have evidence that the journalists in the mainstream media are in fact violating the Code of Ethics. But it’s good to be aware. After all the Code of Ethics does say to “Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”

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