Print

I find it intriguing how U. S. media ethicists love dropping names-Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rawls and others. Probably a habit from medieval scholastics transmitted by German scholarship. One name, however, is not often dropped, that of Jeremy Bentham.

 

That British philosopher, if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be trusted, wrote in 1826 that "Ethics has received the more expressive name of deontology." Since then, however, the word has not been used much, in relation to media at least.

 

It should be. All Latin tongues make good use of it, to describe professional ethics, as opposed to personal ethics. It is a very regrettable fact that U. S. and U. K. commentators tend to confuse the two. Deontology is not about good and evil, virtue and sin: it is about serving the public well-or not.

 

The distinction appeared clearly in a recent debate in the U. S. over plagiarism [see Media Ethics, vol. 17, no. 2, Spring 2006 for contrasting articles on this subject by John C. Merrill and Clifford G. Christians]. To plagiarize-i.e., consciously to appropriate a text written by someone else-is to steal. As such it is both a violation of the law and a violation of ethics. It harms the actual author and the medium that originally published the piece. The exposed plagiarizer will henceforth be known as dishonest and unreliable.

 

But, and this crucial point is never stressed: plagiarism does not hurt the public in any way. Provided the original story was accurate and its publication justified, it makes no difference to the public whose byline is appended to it. Hence, in my view, plagiarism does not fall within the ambit of professional ethics or "deontology."

 

The usefulness of "deontology" is not limited to that issue, of course. It is largely, though discreetly, accepted that in reporting the news, most ethical rules can be violated if the public interest demands it. From the professional's viewpoint, serving the public well is the uppermost consideration. For instance, respect for reputation and privacy is essential, but not when, during the Cold War (1963), a British cabinet minister with defense responsibilities shares a call girl with the Soviet naval attach. Actually, it was dishonorable of the London press that it hesitated so long (largely out of fear of drastic libel laws in Great Britain) before exposing him.

 

It can be argued that the term "media ethics" is available to describe the "deontology," the standards of the profession. I believe not. Most media belong to corporations, not persons, hence are naturally devoid of a moral or social conscience. Their purpose is to survive and prosper, i.e. to make money for their owners, investors or share-holders. While, obviously, they must obey the law, ethics to them is irrelevant. Or is it?

 

Ethics and deontology overlap, clearly. But also both overlap with a third concept, "quality control," not often considered by ethicists. The purpose of quality control has nothing to do with morality, personal or social, but with putting on the market a product that will attract, satisfy and retain customers. In the case of the news industry, the purpose is that readers/listeners/viewers are provided with attractive, understandable, useful, reliable, complete, inexpensive news and commentary.

Ethics is the concern of the individual journalist. Deontology is the concern of the journalistic profession. In virtually every country, unions and associations have adopted codes of conduct. Quality control is the concern of those leaders of the media companies who seek long-term credibility, prestige and profit. Thus the long 2003 New York Times' "Code of Conduct for the News and Editorial Departments" which deals almost exclusively with conflict of interest, is a canon" decreed by management.

 

To foreign observers, the U. S. focus on "ethics" often seems weird. Much has been made of Janet Cooke, of Jayson Blair and other such individual malefactors-while relatively little attention is paid to the lethal lack of foreign news in the U. S. press, to its terrible indifference to issues such as global warming or, closer to home, to the decline of investigative journalism.

 

U. S. journalism students are taught about Aristotle, Kant and J.S. Mill but the U. S. public is not well served by its news media. Investors are smothering dailies by demanding 20%-plus profit margins. Star reporters and pundits play lap-dogs to political leaders. Infotainment is rampant. The idea has faded that news media should be a public service first and a business only second. An awful sign of this evolution was the O.J. Simpson lunacy, which amazed non-U. S. media circles.

 

In the present environment, worldwide, an individual reporter can evidently do little to fight these ugly trends. Publications combining prosperity and high standards such as The New York Times, El Pais in Spain or The Guardian in the U. K. should serve as models but, alas, rather stand out as exceptions. The journalistic profession could do much, but if, only if, it developed a sense of solidarity within each newsroom, city, region, nation-fighting together to promote knowledge and progress.

 

But with news media being bought up by commercial firms, some huge, many multinational-all solely focused on maximum profit, even a close-knit militant profession can do little on its own, without public support. Alas, judging from opinion polls everywhere, these days news people are not among the most trusted and beloved groups.

 

For the good of society as a whole, for the survival of their noble craft, journalists need, not only to shed some of their suicidal individualism, but to work hard at forging links with the public. How? By listening to readers or viewers, finding out what they need and want and later checking whether they are satisfied. How? I have drawn up a list of instruments, a hundred "media accountability systems," documents, institutions, persons, groups, processes.

 

M*A*S are extremely diversified. (See www.media-accountability.org). Some M.A.S appeal to one's sense of ethics, some to the rules of deontology, others to standards of "quality control." All groups in social communication are involved, all must be involved: the reporter, the profession, the industry. "Media accountability systems" need no philosophical foundations. Anyone has access to them, even without a college education. Different as they are, all are non-governmental and practical means of inducing and helping media and journalists to provide the best possible information service.

 

And that just might be a condition for the survival of mankind.

 

 

Claude-Jean Bertrand is professor emeritus at the University of Paris-2, and has frequently championed the concept of Media Accountability Systems in the pages of Media Ethics. His 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, Fall 2006 (18:1),pp. 4,26.