Mass Media Ethics
September 27, 2001
Freedom and Responsibility
In evaluating the mass media, responsibility is clearly more important than freedom. This is because if the media handle their freedom in an irresponsible way, they will ultimately lose it. As Deni Elliott points out in the introduction to Part I: Foundations, “The First Amendment guarantees freedom with no cautionary statement as to how freedom of speech or the press should be exercised” (Elliott 11). If the mass media, or the press, as they are referred to in the First Amendment, have freedom, presumably they are free to be responsible as well as irresponsible.
While this freedom may have been granted by the government of this country, the media are really only as free as they are responsible, because there will be consequences if they are not. Take for example the issue of libel: if a journalist knowingly publishes false, harmful information about a person, that person is a victim of the journalist’s inconsideration and has the right to sue that reporter. Damaging a person’s reputation with untrue statements violates one of Elliott’s requirements for media responsibility; that journalists tell people what they can expect from society and what society expects from them and do so in a way that avoids causing unnecessary harm (Elliott 41).
In another example, the public’s concerns about the media’s sensationalism and violent content, for example, have led to the industry’s self-imposed ratings systems and codes of ethics. These restrict the media’s freedom to some extent, and if an organization chooses not to follow them, they are punished. This could be either by lower ratings by viewers who are upset by the station’s broadcast programming (in the instance of not using a ratings system to warn viewers of violent/sexual programs) or eventually by government restrictions. For, if the industry does not attempt to regulate itself, the government will certainly step in and “set things right.” Of course, if the media acted responsibly in the first place, perhaps even industry regulations would not be needed.
As Louis Hodges writes in “Defining press responsibility: A functional approach,” “Democracy demands a fiercely independent press, especially one free from accountability to government” (Elliott 15). Our form of government will not last long without allowing such freedom, so the media should not take its freedom for granted. Therefore, responsibility is ultimately more important than freedom. If the media does not use its freedom responsibly, it will soon lose it.