The greatest task of media ethics theory is to transform itself into a globalmedia ethics that challenges parochial practice, from uncritical patriotic journalism in times of conflict to one-sided coverage of global issues.
This is the project of global media ethics—articulating universal principles that define the responsibilities of a news media that is now global in reach and impact.
We need a global media ethics for our interconnected world.
Or, so I argue.
Many would differ, casting a skeptical eye upon such high-minded pronouncements. For skeptics, constructing a global media ethics is an unrealistic (or impossible) task and, even if it were possible, it would be undesirable.
There are two types of objection to global media ethics: theoretical and practical.
Theoretically, localism questions the existence of universal values in ethics and in journalism. Also, universalism is an abstract, rule-bound approach to ethics, insensitive to local differences.
Practically, people doubt that news organizations will implement the values of global media ethics in their work. The project of global media ethics is unrealistic, or utopian.
I argue, against these objections, that the project, when understood correctly, is necessary, desirable, and realistic.
Why globalism is necessary
Let me begin by stating why we should "go global" in ethics, and specifically in media ethics. The answer is: Global media power entails global media responsibilities.
Our media-connected world brings together a plurality of different religions, traditions, and groups with varying political agendas, social ideals, and conceptions of "the good." Media content deemed offensive by certain groups can spark not just domestic unrest and even violence but global tension.
A parochial media, ignoring its global responsibilities, can wreak havoc in this tightly linked global world. Unless reported properly, North American readers may fail to understand the causes of violence in the Middle East or of a drought in Africa. Jingoistic reports may incite ethnic groups to attack each other. In times of insecurity, a narrow-minded, patriotic news media can amplify the views of leaders who stampede populations into war or the removal of civil rights for minorities. We need globally responsible media to help citizens understand the daunting global problems of poverty and environmental degradation.
Why not apply existing principles of media ethics to problems raised by a globalization of media? The answer is that traditional media ethics is insufficient because it was, and is, parochial, not global. For traditional media ethics, the media owes responsibilities to a public that is typically within the borders of a nation. Journalists are, first and foremost, citizens of specific countries who should serve their country's national interests. They are not primarily global citizens seeking to create global understandings or global justice.
Theoretical objections: localism
Even if people agree that ethics must change, they may still question global media ethics. One popular source of opposition is ethical localism. For localists, whether they are contextualists, cultural relativists or advocates of situational ethics, global ethics (of any kind) mistakenly advances universalism—the belief in the existence and primacy of universal (or global) values. Universalism is wrong because ethics is local, not universal; and because universalism often results in the imposition of our supposed "global" values on others.
Localists believe that the principles of any ethical system are the product of local culture, and the principles do not apply beyond the culture of their origin. Localists say that if we look around the world, we do not discover universals—principles accepted by all people. Instead we find great variety among, and conflict between, ethical beliefs and systems. Localism is based on a sociology of ethics that begins with the fact that we learn moral values through social inculcation and education. By living in a culture, I absorb its ethical values. These values are parochial, not universal. I appreciate these values because they are part of the practices of my society.
Localism amounts to three claims:
An existence claim: Principles require strong local support to exist and to have moral force.
A "Justification is local" claim: Justification of principles is local—conformity to social norms.
A tolerance claim: In a plural world where ethics is local we should tolerate different ethical systems and practices, not impose 'universal' values.
Localism entails that the project of global media ethics is "conceptually utopian." The norms of media cultures are so different that it is unrealistic to think that they will ever agree on a common global ethics. Localism seems true and unchallengeable because we are familiar with variation among values. But, ultimately, it is unpersuasive. Here are some defects:
Localism mistakenly believes that universalism depends on universal consent for its principles. Universal consent is too demanding as a criterion for the validity of any normative principle. Not even parochial values, such as love of one's country, obtain universal consent within a nation. Universalism is a normative theory about what values people should have, not an empirical theory about what values people do have. Universalism maintains that certain universal principles are so important and based on common human needs that these principles should be adopted as a basis for morality. Universal principles are proposed as values that reasonable people cannot reject. (But realists understand that not all people are reasonable.)
Localists exaggerate the amount of ethical difference in the world, and minimize our use of universals. For example, studies have found a significant number of shared values across cultures and media cultures. Moreover, our ethical systems are redolent with universal values in three ways: We frequently appeal to universals; universals justify parochial values; and, often, parochial beliefs are local applications of universals. Within a given culture, people follow Christianity and its universal principle of love; humanitarians quote Kant's categorical imperative to never treat others as only a means to an end; the golden rule is expressed in universal terms. When people argue against the mistreatment of animals, or against the bullying of abusive spouses, they use universal principles such as the evil of inflicting pain on sentient creatures and the need for human dignity. Appeals to keep one's promises to colleagues and to not mislead friends are parochial applications of universal principles to keep promises and to tell the truth. It is more plausible to hold that ethical systems contain local and universal principles than to maintain that all ethics is local.
The localist's argument against universalism confuses consent with rational justification. People's consent may be based on limited facts, propaganda, or bad logic. Physical force can often procure consent to join in actions. Ethics does not rest solely on consent and conformity. It rests on good moral reasons and informed consent. The objective of universalism is not the unrealistic goal of obtaining the consent of everyone on the planet, no matter how obtained. The goal is to obtain the rational agreement of as many ethically minded people as possible.
Localism, therefore, struggles to formulate itself. It denies universals but it appears to presume universal facts about ethics (e.g., it is local) and universal moral principles, such as tolerance for different cultures. If this is so, what happens to the claim that universals do not exist or have little force?
However, what about the complaint that global ethics, based on universal principles, cannot take cultural variation into account? This is questioned by recent theorizing. For example, the authors of Christians et al (2008) and Christians and Ward (forthcoming) agree that, historically, alleged universal principles have been imposed on other cultures. But this does not entail that universalism must be a form of ideological imposition. The authors explain how universal principles such as respect for life and a commitment to non-violence can be expressed in many ways by different cultures. Moreover, universal values are only one part of ethics. Universalism leaves plenty of room for variety among more specific values within cultures.
Finally, what about globalism and tolerance? I believe that universalism, properly construed, is better equipped to respect other cultures, while not tolerating the intolerable. Global ethics and global media ethics can show tolerance as long as the practices in question do not violate basic universal principles. In recent decades, universalism, especially in the field of human rights, has inspired initiatives to reduce intolerance and injustice in the world.
Localism, as a theory, stumbles when it deals with ethical variety at home and abroad. At home, the problem is that localism is usually formulated as if there were only one set of ethical beliefs in a culture, or one dominant ethical system. The validity of any moral assertion is conformity to this set of values. But what if there are several (and conflicting) ethical traditions? What if sub-groups challenge dominant values, such as "the inferiority of [a particular ethnic or demographic group]"? If conformity to a dominant value system defines ethical validity then, by definition, other value systems and attempts at reform within a culture are invalid. Abroad, the localist's tolerance claim is too accommodating if all it says is "be tolerant of differing practices and norms." How can we tolerate the subjection of females, the slavery of children, the "ethnic cleansing" or elimination of minorities or the persecution of religions—wherever they occur? We need to ask who is demanding respect for their specific values. Are they tyrants seeking to stay in power? We need to ask what beliefs or practices are demanding respect. To decide whether a controversial practice deserves respect requires close evaluation, using a global perspective and global principles.
Even if localists wish to critique practices outside their culture, their theory, as stated, lacks the conceptual resources to do so. They have no basis for criticism. If ethical beliefs are valid within contexts and cultures, then every ethical system is as valid as every other. It seems that localists, to be consistent, must tolerate the intolerable.
In summary, the localist has not made his case that the project of global ethics, or global media ethics, is conceptually utopian or incoherent. I turn now to the practical question of how to develop global media ethics.
Getting down to work
The goal of the project is the development of ethical content—principles for responsible global media—that eventually is endorsed by media practitioners. Some would argue that this project is practically utopian because economic (and other) factors will prevent endorsement by media practitioners. This view underlines an important truth: all of ethics, including a new media ethics, always has to overcome real-world obstacles. But if taken as a general proposition, this view is a counsel of despair. It is premature to conclude, from the beginning, that efforts to build a global media ethics are impossible. We have an ethical obligation to not acquiesce in the status quo.
But, realistically, how much of the project might be realized? I believe we can expect over the long-term that it will be gradually realized to a significant extent.
The project may evolve in three stages:
Stage 1: Injecting ideas into discourse
Stage 1, the stage we currently occupy, is an initial situation or condition where the project needs to introduce global ideas and attitudes to discourse about media, while showing the inadequacies of non-global ethics for today’s media. The goal at this stage is a gradual widening of the ethical attitudes of increasing numbers of journalists and people who write about (and teach, and pay close attention to) news media. To achieve this evolution in attitudes, globalists, media ethics institutes, and educators need to put the topic of global ethics on the agendas of conferences. Global media ethics needs to be discussed on television and radio programs. It needs to be the subject of a growing number of articles and books. Global media ethics needs to have a place in the curriculum of communication and journalism schools—and probably in education at every level.
As for endorsement during this period, the most important endorsements would be from global news organizations such as CNN, newspapers with an international focus, Al Jazeera, worldwide public broadcasters such as the BBC, the major international wire services, and major global Web sites and bloggers. Global news organizations need to lead the way.
Stage 2: Codifying the principles
If Stage 1 is a stage of experimentation with many possible approaches to global media ethics, it should lead to Stage 2. In Stage 2 there emerges an increasing "overlapping consensus" on the content of global media ethics—a set of aims and principles. This convergence would begin to be articulated in editorial guidelines, perhaps first formulated by international news organizations and media associations. At some point, the guidelines may be consolidated into widely accepted codes of global media ethics. The codes would receive elaboration and critique from ethicists, scholars, and researchers. At this stage, non-global and global media ethics will co-exist in an uneasy tension. Global media will be a new and ascendant ethical approach.
It is unrealistic to expect that all media practitioners, all journalists, and all news organizations in the world will adopt one code of global ethics. It may be that media practitioners will accept the need for global ethics and hold a core of principles in common. However, they also may differ on how some of those principles are interpreted. For example, journalists in the West and East may hold different conceptions of what is meant by "a socially responsible media."
Stage 3: Completion of the ethics revolution
In the long run, we only can speculate about a third stage where global media ethics becomes the dominant approach to media ethics. Ethical content will be clearly formulated and receive substantial endorsement.
In developing content, I suggest that globalists work in this manner:
First, we develop a philosophical framework that specifies the global social and political values that global media should promote. The ultimate principles will be drawn from ethics per se, especially cosmopolitan ethics.
Second, once we have these global concepts, we should reformulate media norms and practices. We give them a new global meaning. This is the approach I used in my book arguing for the development of a global journalism ethics (Ward, 2010). I proposed that the ultimate aims of global journalism were best described by a consequentialist theory of human flourishing across borders, plus deontological ideas of human rights and global social justice. Then I gave global interpretations to existing journalistic principles such as objectivity and serving democracy.
Third, with global values and reinterpreted media norms at hand, the project of global media ethics must show how an endorsement of such values would change practice, through case studies and other means.
For those who remain sceptical about the prospects for global media ethics, I ask them to remember the power of new ideas and of pioneering movements over the course of history. As philosophers, we plant ideas like seeds in the hope of germination in the future.
1. Christians, Clifford G., Shakuntala Rao, Stephen J. A. Ward and Herman Wasserman. "Toward a Global Media Ethics: Theoretical Approaches," Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies. Vol. 29(2) (2008): 135-172.
2. Christians, Clifford G. and Stephen J. A. Ward. "Anthropological Realism for Global Media Ethics." In Ethics of Media, ed. Nick Couldry and Mirca Madianou. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. Forthcoming
3. Ward, Stephen. J. A. (ed.) Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming, currently scheduled for January 2013.
4. Ward, Stephen J. A. Global Journalism Ethics. Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2010.