Mass Media Ethics
December 12, 2001
The Importance of Truth in Ethical Decision-making
In the field of mass communication, the practice of ethical decision-making is crucial for a career that provides peace of mind, sound judgment, and the respect of colleagues. Central to being an ethical media practitioner is the concept of truth. While the nature of truth has been debated for centuries, several media specialists and philosophers have espoused their personal views on truth. These people provide useful perspectives for those seeking to employ truth in their decision-making, especially in the areas of journalism and public relations.
In her book The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm describes a scene in which a boy recalls with terror that MacDonald, an alleged murderer, once threw him off a boat in a fit of rage. Malcolm writes, “The incident is another illustration of the difficulty of knowing the truth about anything” (p. 134). As a journalist, it can be hard to piece together a true sequence of events, such as that between MacDonald and the boy, since every party interviewed has a different viewpoint and may remember different things about the episode.
Truth can indeed be elusive. Ed Lambeth writes in Committed Journalism that truth in the sense of factual accuracy is best ensured by checking and rechecking information, and by anticipating error (p. 29). Lambeth also emphasizes that being a distributor of truth is part of a journalist’s role as a moral agent, and other skills, such as interpreting statistics or understanding computer programming, are important too: “…without one or more of these skills he or she may come far less close to the truth in his work, may fail to realize his potential as a moral agent, as a truth teller” (p. 30). Thus, factual accuracy, reinforced by the possession of additional skills, aids the journalist in capturing the ever-elusive truth.
Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill also provide guidance for using truth in media decision-making. Kant’s Categorical Imperative declares that what is right for one is right for all, and that this moral law is unconditionally binding on all rational beings (Christians et al., 2001, p. 15). Therefore, if journalists are taught that truth telling is of value, then all journalists should endeavor to follow that practice, no exceptions. Mill relies not on duty to principle, but rather on doing whatever will bring the greatest good (happiness) to the greatest number of people (Christians et al., 2001, p. 16). According to Mill, if journalists believe that telling their readers/viewers the truth is important for a functioning, prosperous society, then they should tell the truth in their work so that the citizenry will be well informed.
As a print journalism major, I have been taught that truth is central to being an ethical journalist. At this point in my career I am considering becoming a public relations practitioner. I have also been a news reporter and magazine editorial intern. In both journalism and public relations, truth matters a lot in being successful and respected by your colleagues and your community. Without it, people would doubt your credibility, either as a reporter of information (as a journalist) or as a source for what is going on inside a private corporation or government organization (as a PR practitioner). Because of this fact, both journalistic and public relations organizations have included truth in their codes of ethics. Lambeth’s emphasis on accuracy is echoed in the code of ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists, “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error” (http://spj.org/spj_ethics_code.asp). The public relations view is expressed in the Public Relations Society of America Code of Ethics (October, 2000), “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public” (http://www.prsa.org/codeofethics.html).
Such high emphasis on truth can only be carried over into the daily work of a professional, morally developed journalist or public relations practitioner. Developmental theorist Lawrence Kohlberg believed that a person’s ethical framework evolves throughout life. To Kohlberg, the highest level of morality is the post-conventional level, when conscience and universal ethical principles are employed in deciding in favor of justice and the greater social good. Journalists should aspire to reach this post-conventional level by making ethical principles the backbone of their professional and personal decision-making.
Journalists and PR practitioners should look to ethicists such as Kant and Mill, as well as media specialists like Lambeth or Malcolm, and finally to the codes of ethics espoused by professional organizations, to provide the ethical principles that will help them make moral decisions of the highest caliber. Truth is one pursuit that is universal, as it is agreed upon by all these sources. Truth may be elusive, but by proper fact checking, the honing of skills such as statistical interpretation, etc., a media practitioner can have peace of mind knowing he or she has done his/her best to be a credible source of truthful information to the public, thereby furthering the societal good and fulfilling his/her role as a moral agent in society. In my work in the media, whether as a reporter or PR practitioner, I plan to put truth at the top of my list of priorities so that I can confidently pass my work on to others, assured that they can depend on the truth therein.