Print

The great muckraker and investigative journalist, Lincoln Steffens, keeps being reread and rediscovered as people learn how (lamentably) current his early twentieth century exposツs of government corruption and corporate greed are. Seeking moral education and support for his deeply committed journalism, he devoured and then discarded the Western philosophical canon.

...no more philosophy for me. There was no ethics in it....I had been reading [philosophers who] thought they had it all settled. They did not have anything settled...they could not agree upon what was knowledge, [or] what was good and what evil, nor why. The philosophers were all prophets, their philosophies beliefs, their logic a justification of their-religions. And as for their ethics, it was without foundation. The only reasons they had to give for not lying or stealing were not so reasonable as the stupidest English gentleman's: "It isn't done." 1

Steffens expressed exasperation with philosophers' uselessness for helping to develop methods for everyday, ethical practice. He later developed his own ethical standards-influenced, no doubt, by some of the very philosophers he had found inadequate-that were informed by his growing understanding of the requirements of responsible journalism.

In his comments in the Fall 2003 issue of MEDIA ETHICS, Seth Ashley writes of the inadequacy of "ethical principles" which he is ready to throw "out the window." I share his concern about relying on formulae and templates such as the Potter Box. However, I think the point is not what concepts to throw through the window, but the need to throw open the window wide to an array of ethical theories, including those of ignored or underrepresented philosophers, regions and cultures, and to examine them in the broadest possible international and intercultural context.

The problem with media ethics education is not the presence of secular and religious ethical philosophies but the narrowness of the philosophies surveyed, the people they include and represent (and exclude), and the contexts in which they are used. Journalism education and its ethical courses and discourses remain Western-, Christian-, Caucasian- and male-biased, ahistorical and focused on "mainstream" media and dominant populations. This is despite the rapidly changing lists of cultural communities that constitute "dominant populations." In the rare instances in which other perspectives are engaged, they tend to be marginalized and specialized. For example, women philosophers and feminist ethicists are often included in women's studies courses but are seldom on the required-reading lists of media ethics courses and thus, are absent from the central dialogue in media ethics. As Lorraine Code puts it, "...socially constructed institutions and theories have contributed to the public invisibility of women, and hence the inaudibility of female voices in the philosophical forum." 2

Hamid Mowlana reminds us that the boundaries of ethical studies are at least in part, culturally determined. 3 The principle of inclusivity is an essential requirement of ethical media practice, yet it seldom enters into ethics texts or courses, let alone being identified as a central consideration. Daily journalistic practice and codes of ethics increasingly pay closer attention to fairness and accuracy in reporting minority issues and people. But the journalists and their subjects in countries such as the United States remain overwhelmingly Caucasian, and members of minority communities who are reported in the media still are too often relegated to stereotypical "soft" categories and spaces. African Americans make the music and sports pages and broadcasts far more often than the news pages and newscasts. When they do make the news, it's likely to be related to crime, drugs and corruption. There has been progress, but it's stunningly slow, and is even slower to reach the ethics classroom. I still hear colleagues complain about the annoying habit some of us have, of "diverting attention from the major ethical issues."

As a journalist and educator in Canada, the United States and Britain, I have had an opportunity to observe those countries' various approaches and practices. Canada has the most enlightened policies for empowering minority voices, having provided core and continuing funding for minority media outlets and small media more generally. The Canada-wide Aboriginal People's Television Network is unique in the world, in providing daily, multilingual programming by, for and about indigenous people. Included in the basic cable television package, it is available to about 90 percent of television viewers.

The U.S. has the greatest number of media ethics texts and courses, but I can't say that situation has meant a major shift in journalism education or practice. Most texts still rely on the usual suspects and the Western canon. Legislatively, Britain seems just to have discovered diversity, though the television day provides a wider (and often less self-conscious) array of people and programs involving people of colour, multicultural and cross-cultural themes, marriages, partnerships and subjects, gay and lesbian characters and people with disabilities than is found on American television.

In these countries, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination persist in the media and, by omission as well as commission, in the society at large (including university curricula). A recent issue of my local northeast England newspaper carried a splashy new lifestyle supplement with a lavishly photographed feature headlined, "Celebrating the Difference."

The story described a program-presumably intended to counter well-documented bouts of local harassment, assault, and generalized intolerance of cultural difference-in which members of Indian and other cultural communities were invited to bring their music, food, clothes and art to a primary school.

But did the paper show children from these communities? No. The photos featured seven sweet-looking, pale-faced girls, all but one of them blonde. The editor used cutely punning captions (e.g., "Sari, sari night"). But, like her companions, the girl whose photograph is captioned "All white here" is indeed "all white." So where's the celebrated "difference"?

Not in the photographs or the clothes. The newspaper called the event "a true taste of India," gushing that "The girls felt like little princesses as they dressed in silks..."4 It's true some Indian people, including those living abroad, wear saris, but most Indo-British students wear the same kinds of outfits as their Caucasian classmates.

So, this depiction of exoticised "others" serves more to perpetuate cultural stereotyping than to promote genuine understanding and is, I would argue, unethical. There is no hint of dialogue between students of different ethnic backgrounds. Here was a missed opportunity to promote intercultural tolerance and understanding-including the fact that, in India, white generally is a funereal colour.

In the 1990s, the Canadian journalist Bud Whiteye (from the Moraviantown Delaware First Nation) and I ran a cross-cultural seminar for Canadian journalism students. Only four out of about 200 students were from ethnic minorities. They met journalists and leaders from several communities and cultures.

Presumably well-exposed to Canadian mass media coverage of these groups, the students nevertheless expressed surprise at the range of people, ideas, politics, colours and cultures to whom they were introduced. Encouraged to visit First Nations communities, they returned in shock. They said, "We never expected to see stores and gas stations, schools and libraries; it looked just like a town."

Problems of misrepresentation and racism in mass media are international. In 2002, a Suzuki ad showed an ash-blond boy in a generic First Nations (in the U.S., "Native American") headdress promoting a Japanese car with "ample space for braves and big chiefs... young Hiawatha...needn't leave his headdress behind, which could avoid some ruffled feathers." 5

Similarly, a Swedish clothing designer tells readers of her Spring 2003 catalogue that the collection, emphasizing feathers, beads, and geometric patterns, was inspired by "wild, colourful Native Americans."

The multilayered misinformation in the catalogue footnotes is overwhelming. "Red Indians prefer to be called 'Native Americans'"; "Chippewa" is "The highest leader (Chief) in the Algonquian tribe"; "Squaw" is "A Native American woman." A blonde model with feathers in her hair, identified as "Squaw Hanna," "dances wild in a Native American-inspired tunic...and pretty ikat-weave silk scarf..."-but ikat is an Indonesian weaving technique, and "squaw" is a term many Native American and other people have long considered offensive. Ironically, the designer is a descendant of Sámi people (indigenous northern Europeans whom some call "Lapps") and her catalogues are among the few to regularly feature models of different colours, shapes, heights and ages. 6

Some journalists try to meet head-on the unethical common media misrepresentations of minority groups that help to perpetuate misunderstanding in the broader society. In May 2003 the national British newspaper, The Independent, ran a front-page story aimed at educating readers about immigrants and minorities. Pointing out that while an opinion poll showed "the public believes that the UK hosts about 23 percent of the world's refugees" the paper pointed out that "the real figure is 1.98%." (To increase the impact, the misinformation was printed in small black type and the correct information in large red type.)

The Independent did well in the above example, but two weeks later, it ran an altogether different story that gratuitously included culturally specific information. The headline, "Tamil beat man to death through 'sheer cruelty'" (Clarke 2003:8) could have appeared in any tabloid. The story concerns gang conflicts and killings. It never explains whether the people involved are asylum seekers, recent immigrants, or long-time British citizens. There is no historical or social context. By emphasizing ethnicity and brutality over facts and context, the reporter gives readers too little information to enable them to understand what has taken place. Instead of adding contextual information, the editor chose to print a mug-shot-style photograph of the convicted man, underscoring the racist element of the story.

Such treatment runs counter to the paper's own efforts to challenge racism in the press. It demonises a community of British citizens or residents as barbaric outsiders. I believe the media have responsibility not only for correcting misinformation, fact by fact, but for assuring inclusive accuracy and fairness in both headline and story.

In his War Song, There is no middle ground, the Nishnawbe (Ojibway) spiritual teacher and poet, Arthur Solomon, wrote: "There are many people who have seen the way things are/And have asked almost in despair,/But what can I do?.../You may not be able to change where you work or how/You earn your living./But you are totally responsible for the direction that/You give your own life./;whatever we are, we must be action people..." Thus, Solomon challenges us to commit ourselves to the practice of applied ethics-the application of those philosophical meanderings that so frustrated Lincoln Steffens to the contextualised requirements of daily work.

If we take it as given that promoting tolerance and preventing violence are social goods, then media complicity in perpetuating or challenging intolerance is inseparable from other ethical considerations. Educators have the opportunity to perpetuate old stereotypes and restricted world-views, or to expose students to a range of perspectives and practices, reflecting the population of media practitioners and consumers. It is not only obtuse but unethical to pretend that Western civilization provides the only models. To consider the work of Zoroaster, Agnes Heller, Hillel or Seyla Benhabib 9 is not to abandon that of Kant or Aristotle.

An editor once called this a "one-sided" argument for "the faithful." I can't understand why that would be any more the case than advocating the Potter Box or the Categorical Imperative. Nor do I understand why a call to inclusivity invokes "faith," while a Western/Caucasian/male-dominant approach is based on "facts." Old approaches come from Eastern and Western ethical traditions. New approaches, people and ideas emerge in every generation. Our world is increasingly one of cross-cultural exploration and boundary-crossing. Why would we want to deprive students and media practitioners of the full extent and richness of human thought?

Steffens wrote about the inseparability and interdependence of peoples and nations decades before "globalization." He did not just want to notice intolerance and inequality, poverty and injustice, government and corporate collusion and corruption to merely inform the public. He wanted journalism to help people change things for the better. It is time we took that principle seriously and applied it to the full spectrum of media education and practice.

REFERENCES

1 Steffens, Lincoln (1931). The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, NY: Harcourt, Brace, p. 139.

2 Code, Lorraine, Sheila Mullett and Christine Overall (eds.) (1988). Feminist Perspectives: Philosophical Essays on Method and Morals, Toronto/London: University of Toronto Press.

3 Mowlana, Hamid (1989). "Communication, Ethics, and the Islamic Tradition", in Cooper, Thomas W., Clifford G. Christians, Robert A. White and Francis F. Plude, Communication Ethics and Global Change, White Plains, NY: Longman, pp. 137-146.

4 Colling, Linda (2003). "Celebrating the difference", Sunderland Echo, 22 July, Lifestyle section, pp. 6, 7.

5 Suzuki (2002). "Room for the tribe" (advertisement published in UK magazines), Japan: Suzuki.

6 Sjヤden, Gudrun (2003). Spring 2003: The Four Elements, Part One, Stockholm: Gudrun Sjヤden.

7 The Independent (2003). 23 May:1.

8 Solomon, Arthur (1991). Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way (Michael Posluns, ed.), Toronto: New Canada Publications.

9 Bracci, Sharon L. and Clifford G. Christians (eds.) (2002). Moral Engagement in Public Life, NY: Peter Lang, pp. 53-72; 123-149.

*Valerie Alia is Reader in Media Ethics and Culture at the University of Sunderland, United Kingdom, Co-Research Director of the Institute of Communication Ethics, and Media Series Editor for Edinburgh University Press. Her new book, Media Ethics and Social Change, is out this spring. Her next project, Media and Ethnic Minorities, is co-authored with Simone Bull. Her e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp. 5,17-19.