barbed-wire-1670222 1920barbed-wire-1670222 1920BY LILI NING


Lili Ning: From the traditional media age to the new media age, how have the topics of media ethics changed?

Clifford Christians: This is an important question. In communication theory, such as Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, humans are defined as language beings, as symbol makers. This means that when our symbol-making is radically changed by digital technology, there will be basic alterations in people’s social life and thinking. For the principles of media ethics to continue to be relevant, media ethicists must understand the impact of the new technologies on society and human identity.  

In agenda-setting, scholars typically divide the tasks into three areas: 1. topics that continue unchanged, 2. those that are new, and 3. topics that have been revised and altered by the revolution.  One topic in the first category is truth.  In all the codes of ethics that have been studied and compared from around the world, “truth” is included in every one as a topic for print and for broadcasting. The meanings of “truth” vary, but the basic idea has been a principle of media ethics historically and continues in the digital revolution. An example of 2. is surveillance. With digital technology governments can develop and monitor data banks of their citizens, and expand their power by knowing and controlling everyone’s personal information and activities. Violence is an example of 3. Violence in entertainment television and cinema is now much broader and deeper because of interactive violence in video games and web-based hate sites around the world. 

These three topics illustrate each of the three categories. The teachers and researchers of media ethics are clarifying the agenda now. However, because the new technologies are world-wide in scope, professionals and academics from across the globe also have a responsibility to help define and clarify the important topics in the new media age. When we agree on an agenda of the important issues, we will be able to concentrate on the issues that matter rather than be diverted into secondary and minor topics.   

Lili Ning: The new media, featuring media integration, social interaction and big data, have become one of the important means for users to obtain information. According to media ecology theory, society produces new media and at the same time society is shaped to a certain extent by the new media. Harold Innis said, in effect, that a new medium will produce a new civilization. In McLuhan’s formulation, “the media is the message.”1 But compared with the traditional media era, ethical defaults in the new media phenomenon are more serious. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist, proposed the concept “Risk Society” in 1986.2 What social risks will the ethical defaults in the news media lead to?

Clifford ChristiansI concur in using Canadian communication theory that started with Innis, and also the tradition of Ulrich Beck, to assess the new media. The tendency has been to herald new media technologies as breakthroughs and revolutionary inventions and instruments of social progress. But “Media Ecology” and “Risk Society” are concepts that require deeper analysis from us. They challenge us to understand the new technologies historically and scientifically and, when we do, we are able to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of the new media.  All systems open new worlds and close others. Therefore, we need to be explicit about harms and risk, about those who benefit and those who do not.

The new media technologies make possible new forms of politics, give business world-wide opportunities and increase people’s participation in social life. But this question is the challenging one for researchers to answer. A long list could be made of negatives, but the greatest problem, I believe, is relativism. Relativism is a long-standing issue, but in the 21st century, relativism has taken on a comprehensiveness that threatens our progress in communication ethics.

For cultural relativism, in principle all cultures are equally valid. The diversity of languages and people groups around the world is attractive to communication theory and practice. The vast variety of human life is appreciated when other cultures are not considered inferior, only different. In comparative research, local cultures need to be studied in their own terms from the inside out.

But notice that I am advocating cultural relativism. The social risk we are facing is that in advocating cultural relativism, we are actually promoting moral relativism. Cultural relativism has been popularized to mean that, since cultures are equal, value systems are equally valued no matter how different they are. Those of us in communication generally follow this redefinition and in doing so we promote relativism rather than resolve it. The media tend to emphasize particulars and the immediate. In our passion for ethnography, for the local, we typically allow cultural relativity to slide into philosophical relativism.  

Cultural relativism is indispensable for promoting diversity and it is important in ethnographic research. However, relativism in the moral domain is both misused and erroneous. We live in a world of unrelenting conflict and, without employing ethical principles, the controversies between communities and nations will never be resolved. Without ethical principles, history is but the recounting of contests of arbitrary power. On what grounds should terrorists be condemned for trying to achieve political ends by violence? The political power that protects outrageous government corruption needs to be contradicted by the moral power of integrity and honesty. We may very well destroy the distinction between fact and fiction in the absence of ethical standards. Without a commitment to norms that are beyond one’s own self-interest, insisting on our rights is merely an emotional preference. We need to be certain of our moral foundations or our social practices are arbitrary. On a deep level, my concern is that the abundance of information that is now possible will harm us by promoting moral relativism.    

Lili NingSome researchers have concluded that the ethical problems of the new media include distorted news, rumors, information pollution, cyber-bullying, information insecurity, internet pornography and so on. The main reasons for these failures in media ethics are typically said to be economic interests, low media literacy, weak gatekeeping, and the lack of relevant law. In the convergent media era, "everyone has a microphone." Therefore, how can moral interventions be carried out and the problems of ethics be solved?

Clifford Christians“Everyone has a microphone” represents a significant issue for media ethics. Since the new social media are a worldwide phenomenon, it is a reality for countries across the globe and we will need to assist one another in learning how to deal with it.

For the professional media, ethical standards can be made explicit and followed. Media companies typically have codes of ethics that those who work in the company are expected to know and practice. Laws that regulate media organizations and the treatment of customers and sources are not always effective, but in countries known for the rule of law these regulations provide standards of conduct and serve as constraints. But, you rightly ask, when “everyone has a microphone,” how is it possible to have ethical standards or laws that are meaningful and can be enforced?  With the social media everywhere and personal and voluntary, how can there be gatekeeping and morality that are relevant?  

All of the abuses of the new technologies that the question lists are pertinent: cyber-bullying, internet pornography, rumors, distorted news and so forth. There have been legal initiatives in Europe that are directed at Internet Service Providers, making it illegal for them to host hate internet sites or those advocating violence, or that violate human rights laws. But these efforts at regulation only deal with a small percentage of ethical problems.

Education in media literacy has shown the most promise. When media literacy is taught well on the secondary school level, there has been more responsible use of the social media. Media literacy courses that include ethics, and teach students social scientific findings on the harms of media abuse, increase moral awareness and inspire social media users to regulate their own practices. It is technological determinism to claim that the media themselves cause violence or criminal behavior; therefore, I believe bullying and violence and pornography are broader social issues that need to be addressed beyond the teaching of media literacy.

Lili NingAgainst the background of communication around the world and cultural diversity, is there a unified media ethical standard?

Clifford ChristiansThe question of universals is one of most active topics in media ethics at present. Since our media technologies are global, specialists in media ethics in different parts of the world are giving universal principles their primary emphasis in research and scholarship. Media ethicists in the West are concerned that we not duplicate the mistakes of the Enlightenment when absolutes like Kant’s categorical imperatives were thought to be true of all rational beings. Formal abstractions built on Western individualism and oriented to industrial democracies do not honor cultural diversity. Rather than concluding that the idea of universal principles must be abandoned, I believe the challenge is finding universals that have a different character than do rigid and static theorems.

In 1948, the United Nations issued the universal human rights declaration that illustrates how the ethical principle of human dignity can be a unified standard without being a Western-style absolute: “All human beings have unique and special status regardless of race, age, class, education, gender or religion.”

The most progress on universal ethical standards has resulted when theories start from the human species as a whole rather than beginning with the individual decision-makers. Ethics typically emphasizes the person who has a choice for good or bad behavior, showing for individuals what moral principles are applicable. Some major theorists such as John Rawls in the United States and Jürgen Habermas in Germany have a nation-state framework instead of an individual one.

But when one has a world mind and starts from a consideration of the entire human race, it is superior to an individualistic or national orientation. The question for ethics, then, is what morality is appropriate to the everyday life of all people. What do people generally consider the common good? Human dignity is an example of such a principle for someone as a human being regardless of how and where he or she lives. Everyone deserves respect, regardless of social circumstances.

This ethics of universals rather than absolutes is a grounded theory. The principle arises from our lived experience rather than dictated top-down by experts. Universals are horizontal, absolutes are hierarchical. Absolutist principles do threaten cultural diversity, but universals do not. Often when global standards are rejected or criticized, the objections are addressed to absolutist thinking. Therefore, media ethicists who are working on universals emphasize that they do not mean absolutes.        

Lili NingIn the new media era, what can be done and what can not be done about media ethical governance by media gatekeeping and by government regulation?

Clifford ChristiansThis is a crucial question about the relationship between ethics and law. The majority of courses in media ethics taught in the United States, for example, include both media and law.

On various issues, such as privacy, the legal and ethical dimensions are closely related and both aspects must be included to establish moral guidelines. But the best way to relate law and ethics is complicated. William Babcock’s recent handbook on Media Law and Ethics is two volumes in length and includes nearly 100 chapters on the important questions and issues in the law-ethics relation. In democratic societies that protect free speech and the free press, government regulation is avoided and the media’s self-regulation is advocated as the only appropriate form of media gatekeeping. The majority of Americans, for example, believe in Internet neutrality; they prefer to have the market and audiences themselves control the Internet rather than risk government interference.

While continuing to work out a productive relationship between government law and professional ethics, I believe media ethics should focus on its own domain, and not be hampered by the law-ethics relationship. Norms for self-regulation are necessary, regardless of the form of government. Separate courses for media ethics allow for more depth than courses which try to teach both law and ethics. When ethics are strong, the need for law is lessened.  

The social responsibility theory of the media, in various forms, is known around the world. In social responsibility perspective, the media are accountable to society, and not to government or to business. Social responsibility is a form of media gatekeeping; emphasizing it and developing its effectiveness, and ensuring that its moral basis is clear and strong, are worthwhile tasks. Social responsibility warrants a major commitment from us in both our theories and practices.   

Lili NingYou and your colleagues propose that truth, human dignity and non-violence are protonorms.3 Some researchers have concluded that audiences are more sensitive to fake news or rumors in the new media age, but less sensitive to the phenomenon that news and commentary disrespect others. Violent pictures and language are even accepted.4 How do you approach this problem?

Clifford ChristiansIt is very important in ethics to distinguish principle and practice. The audience research that you describe refers to practice. Truth, human dignity, and non-violence are ethical principles. These ethical principles are rooted in the universal sacredness of human life. When truth, human dignity, and non-violence are honored as principles, the media are ethical.

The media in practice do not always live up to these principles. News reports are often sensational and violent. Instead of following the principle of human dignity, the media sometimes humiliate people and invade their privacy. Instead of accurate, fully documented information, the media make mistakes and publish gossip or stories that are misleading.  But the failures in practice do not mean that the principles are wrong. In fact, when principles are violated, they must be insisted on and reaffirmed. To establish principles, then, is the task of media ethics.

Your question centers on practice, on research into media use by audiences. Media ethicists who are preoccupied with principles do take seriously research that applies principles, that focuses on human values. It will be of keen interest if research finds that audiences in the new media age are more sensitive to issues of truth than they are to the principles of human dignity and non-violence. I will want to study this research carefully in order to know its methodology, the kind of media programming surveyed in the study, the hypotheses that were being tested, and the demographics of the audiences. Then I will be able to critique the results in greater detail.

But, regardless of the results of this further inquiry, the distinction between principle and practice is not invalidated. The three ethical principles that are reflected in the three audience reactions continue to be relevant. Because disrespect of others and accepting of violence are contrary to the principles of human dignity and non-violence, this does not mean that journalists should not follow these principles and they should no longer be taught in ethics classes. This research, instead, challenges those of us in media ethics to work harder on the principles, to learn how to teach them more clearly, and to find examples from media content in which the principles of human dignity and non-violence are used effectively. The principle of non-violence is difficult to implement in a world of conflict and warfare; therefore, scholars from different countries are developing a detailed peace journalism that includes specific guidelines for reporting.

Lili NingSome researchers think that there are differences between traditional media ethics and new media ethics. For example, traditional media ethics involves concrete subjects and events, and traditional ethical principles are strict and specific. However, moral judgment in the new media era is weakening. How do you regard this contrast between traditional and new media ethics?

Clifford ChristiansResearch that draws immense conclusions about history and geography needs to be examined closely to determine whether it is valid. However, I will assume in answering that these generalizations are basically accurate—that traditional media ethics has concrete subject matter and strict adherence, and the morality regarding the new media is weak. Media ethics as a field of study needs to be clarified here. Media ethics, as a discipline, has been working on ethical principles for more than a century.

Print was dominant at the beginning of this period and much of the theory and application were oriented to print. The shift to broadcasting raised new ethical questions, but conclusions from the print era could be largely carried forward into broadcasting. With the internet era now only two decades old, and new inventions constantly are revolutionizing it, media ethics has been dealing only for a short time with a fluid and mobile technological form. It is naïve to expect the same ethical specificity and strictness regarding this new technology.

Whereas much of media ethics was carried forward from print technologies to radio, television, and film, the new social media have a different storage system and are an interactive technology.

Therefore, the theorizing in media ethics needs more innovation and new perspectives than were necessary in the shift to broadcasting. In addition to the brief period of time so far to work on media ethics for the new social media, the new media era is tending toward fragmentation and audience bubbles and trajectories of bias that isolate segments of the population from another. Habermas is correct in his belief that morality is to be worked out in the public sphere, with interactive discourse among all those involved in the outcome.

A divided and fragmented public does not have the incentive and media forms to search together for the common good. The social media as technological “means” have not fostered to date moral “ends.” It is possible that even in the future, after media ethics has developed the resources to deal competently with new media, a mobile and erratic world of process will be an arena of weak moral judgment.  

Lili NingWhat are the important issues that the research of media ethics should pay attention to in the new media age?

Clifford ChristiansMedia ethicists are still in the process of answering that question. If one does a content analysis of research studies and textbooks and scholarly monographs around the world during the 21st century, a list of eight topics emerges as the most important issues. These ethical issues can be identified and summarized as: 1. distributive justice (the uneven distribution of media technologies), 2. government surveillance and electronic documentation of its citizens, 3. conglomerates and centralized ownership of global  information systems, 4. global citizenship (cosmopolitanism), 5. violence, 6. privacy, 7. pornography, and 8. multiculturalism and diversity.

Professor Zhan Jiang of Beijing Foreign Studies University lists nine important moral and ethical issues in the Chinese media: paid news, fabrication, cruelty in covering pain and tragedies, excesses of sexuality, undercover reporting and hidden cameras, saving life or reporting, press freedom versus fair trial, news sources, and violence in the media. These nine topics refer to the major issues in the three media categories in China: party press and broadcast, market-oriented media, and the online media. The online media are growing the fastest, and this may lead to a different set of important issues in the future.

In my own answer to the agenda question for the digital age, I take moral philosophy seriously. I do the content analysis described above and study intensely the country-by-country summaries such as Professor Zhan’s. However, in addition, I believe that the issues and debates in moral philosophy should be brought into the picture.  When moral philosophy is included, we are assured that central and bedrock issues are on our agenda, and not only minor or temporary problems.

On that basis, I believe the three major issues for digital media ethics are truth, human dignity, and non-violence. These issues encompass the whole technological range from Twitter, Renren, Facebook and weblogs to convergent information and communication networks. This agenda will help us produce a media ethics that is international, multicultural, and gender inclusive.

  • Lili Ning, a former journalist, is in the School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University, Beijing, and in the Literature Institute of Dali University, Dali City, Yunan Province, PRC. Her e-address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Clifford Christians is Research Professor of Communications Emeritus and a publisher of Media Ethics magazine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His e-address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


1 Daokuan He(2002).“The binary stars of the Canadian school of communication: Ennis and Mcluhan”, Journal of Shenzhen University (Humanities and Social Sciences), 19 (5) :93-99.1 Daokuan He(2002).“The binary stars of the Canadian school of communication: Ennis and Mcluhan”, Journal of Shenzhen University (Humanities and Social Sciences), 19 (5) :93-99.

2, 4 Daocheng Yan(2015). “The basic dimension of the construction of new media ethics: Responsibility Ethics”, Journal of social science of Hunan Normal University, 2015 (1) :145-153.

3 Clifford G. Christians (2010). “The Ethics of Universal Being”, Media Ethics Beyond Borders: A Global Perspective, Stephen J. A. Ward & Herman Wasserman (eds.), New York: Routledge.