Jane Singer and Ian Ashman, in a recent article in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics ("'Comment is Free, but Facts are Sacred': User-generated Content and Ethical Constructs at the Guardian," Vol. 24, No. 1, 2009) have, in my opinion, opened a core of very important issues in the theoretical introduction to their article. MEDIAETHICS, unlike JMME (which has a policy against such things), is willing to publish commentary such as this, so it is appearing here. This is not a rebuttal or attack-I see the Singer-Ashman piece as resting solidly on an existential theoretical platform, and providing a novel approach to research. Clouded somewhat by philosophical language, they have nevertheless advanced thoughts of their own and of some notable philosophers that should be catalytic for anyone interested in mass media ethics. Their article opens up new vistas of existential relevance to the study of communications media, and I think it is both seminal and catalytic.
Although the authors' theoretical base, composed of existentialist principles, seems strong enough to support their interesting research findings, a few subtle questions are engendered. "Comment is Free, but Facts are Sacred" is the title of their article; it relates some of the ideas of such existentialists as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Buber to the personal struggle of public communicators trying to be ethical.
Singer and Ashman tie their article mainly to the new potential of the Internet, which they agree provides fresh opportunities to democratize news and opinion. But their theoretical discussion goes beyond user-generated Internet dialogue and relates to moral problems in the mass media generally. They see as "a framework" for addressing relevant ethical questions a consideration of core
So let us look briefly at some of their "framework" propositions. Comment, indeed, is free-but like all utterances can be stopped at the lips of the commentator if the controller's will so desires. And if the comment is permitted, it can be extremely dangerous. As for "but facts are sacred," the implication is that, unlike comment, facts are not free, or should not be free. The quick way out of this quandary is to admit that some comment is free and some facts are sacred (italics mine). But both expose the communicator to ridicule, penalties, and often danger.
For the communicator wanting to be ethical such a practical awareness often means self-control and moderation (self-censorship?) that clash with the ethics of honesty and full-disclosure. If the communicants are strongly alarmed by this they will avoid comments and withhold facts. The existential communicator, however, will give the commentary and facts and take the consequences. As for the idea that "facts are sacred," we should recognize that some may be (if we can decode "sacred") and others may not be. The ethical communicator must, then, be very careful about which facts will be made public and which ones will remain in silent sanctity. Commentary and facts per se are not required in the ethical discourse.
Merleau-Ponty is said to argue, according to Singer and Ashman, that there are only two states of existence possible: absolute freedom and absolute determinism. Merleau-Ponty said that it was "inconceivable" that he could be free in certain of his actions and unfree or controlled in others. For me, this is a very strange belief and statement. Even an existentialist should know that in the real world there is no such thing as absolute freedom, and that degrees of determinism do indeed exist. Surely every journalist knows that some of her actions are freely taken and some are determined by the editor or others.
Then we get the digested words of Jean-Paul Sartre who believed that when a person (a journalist for example) makes a choice, he or she makes this same choice for everyone. Only a Frenchman could believe that. It is too bad he does not stick with his individualistic concept of freedom of choice residing in the autonomous person. When a person chooses to act, he acts. Someone else chooses to act, she acts. Period.
It appears to me that Sartre, who certainly is a maximalist in freedom (despite a flirtation with Marxism), is trying to give a Kantian spin to his choosing, and tries to universalize it. It seems to me that a pure existentialist would say simply: "What I choose I choose for myself alone; what you choose you choose for yourself alone."
The Sartrean belief in "no excuses" is a good one for the media existentialist, but it is one that takes a tremendous amount of courage. Personal responsibility is the requirement here; as Singer and Ashman say, "No matter the provocation or pressure, the existentialist can never say with any sense of authenticity that 'they made me do it'." This is a very important concept for the communicator and places the ultimate responsibility, not on an institution or group, but on the individual user who is generating the message content.
Singer and Ashman next turn to the troublesome subject of authenticity. Existentialists value it highly. Heidegger, for instance, sees it as the necessity and responsibility of a person to choose one's own identity-to be one's own self. Sartre's position is very similar: to be authentic is to comprehend one's being in a situation wherever it happens to be. This, of course, confronts the "authentic" person with the possibility of doing social harm, for authenticity is not synonymous with virtue and does not assure ethical action. It suggests that the ethical person must go beyond authenticity and reach a level of morality.
In the final portion of their thought-provoking prologue on existentialism, Singer and Ashman get into a discussion of dialogue, based largely on the ideas of Martin Buber and his two fundamental modes of existence: the individual and the social-or, as he refers to them: the I-It and the I-Thou. The I-It position, for Buber, represents a poor way of living characterized by anxiety and alienation. It certainly should not be the position of a public communicator. The I-Thou type requires interaction and empathy, thinking of the other, not of oneself. Buber sees meaningful dialogue occurring only with the I-Thou perspective, which is rather obvious. It is a useful stance for the journalist, for example, for it enables what Buber calls inclusion and experience of other positions.
Singer and Ashman weave the concept of "responsibility" into their discussion of existentialism. This is not a major topic for them, but it is there, and it is hinted at in existentialist philosophy. Since existentialism is mainly a philosophy of freedom, responsibility, for most of its devotees, is subordinated and relegated largely to the individual's subjectivity. As most existentialists see it, such responsibility is largely the responsibility of the person to remain as free as possible. And of course this means that too much stress on responsibility or ethics would curtail or restrain the greatest exercise of freedom. Therefore, responsibility (and ethics) has not been a major theme in the literature of existentialism.
In spite of what has just been said, it is my opinion that Singer and Ashman have chosen a good instrument-existentialism-by which to discuss the growing problem of interactive, dialogic communication in the media and via Internet. The core characteristics of existentialism are Freedom, Individualism, Commitment, Action, and Responsibility (which I have abbreviated as FICAR). When the mass media and Internet users-senders and receivers-recognize the intrinsic value of this FICAR existentialist formula, then they will open new doors in the communication world where fresh moral winds can blow in.
John C. Merrill is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Missouri. He is author of, among other works, EXISTENTIAL JOURNALISM (1966). Jane Singer and Ian Ashman, following their theoretical prologue (the focus of this commentary) present the findings of their research at the U.K.'s GUARDIAN newspaper which is interesting in itself. The reader is directed to the January-March 2009 issue of the JOURNAL OF MASS MEDIA ETHICS for the full article,"'Comment is Free, but Facts are Sacred': User-generated Content and Ethical Constructs at the GUARDIAN."