A good many journalists and journalism students would initially respond favorably to Seth Ashley's easy dismissal of moral reasoning. The reasons are not difficult to discern. Among working professionals there is a ubiquitous sense that outsiders have no comprehension of the real work and pressure of journalism, and thus should not presume to pontificate. This reaction would especially apply if those outsiders were philosophers or theologians, whose pontifications are legendary for squeezing complex issues into ambiguous categories and hapless conclusions.
As the conversation of media ethics goes into round two, however, some of those early converts to Ashley's pragmatism would begin to slide. "Why would anyone believe that?" some might say. "How does X make any better sense than Y?" others might opine. At which point someone might begin to make use of a philosophical or theological principle, to sort the options and evaluate the alternatives.
The authors of Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning grant that real-world decisions often do not permit round-table discussion of principles or axioms. We grant a general distaste among journalists and students for ambiguity or pointless chatter. But we also believe journalists are at their best when failing to accept easy first solutions. Students also are trained to probe and evaluate, as preparation for the day when time to probe is strained by deadline, and reason to probe is overwhelmed by political or career considerations.
Seth Ashley reminds us to stay clear-headedly conscious of the demands facing working journalists, and of the eclectic mind-world of undergraduate students. We remain his allies for the day when one of his own students will probe the reasons why, and he himself resorts to discussion concerning first principles, as he must when the conversation goes past round one. We do not claim that our book presents the final word, but we do claim that students who think through this text under a talented mentor-teacher will see the moral options more clearly and may respond to their own professional dilemmas with greater wisdom and courage.
* Mark Fackler is a co-author of the book under discussion.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), p.19.