Anyone who deals with FCPA compliance – or with any other federal, global, or local laws and regulations – is acutely aware that compliance and ethics are two separate matters. What is legal or “in compliance” is not necessarily ethical or moral. This is true not only in the field of law but also numerous other arenas such as business, politics and journalism. We live in a cynical age where seemingly unethical behavior by lawyers, corporations, politicians, and media outlets is increasingly shrugged off as “business as usual.” Even so, perceived ethics breaches in these areas still have the power to cause outrage and incite cries for reform.
The media have repeatedly come under fire for practices that the public perceives as unethical. Think of the problems that media magnate Rupert Murdoch has faced in recent years. And Murdoch is far from alone. People routinely accuse the news media of deliberately distorting or covering up facts; of being politically biased; of invading privacy; of being sensationalist; or of being too commercially driven. The entertainment media often come under fire too, mostly for pandering to the public’s appetite for gratuitous sex and violence, and for providing brainless, throwaway content. For the purpose of discussing ethics and media, however, we are going to concentrate on the news/information media, with a brief nod to advertising and marketing content, which are increasingly being married to “news” content in sometimes-insidious ways.
Journalism has its standards and its codes of ethics, of course, which have evolved over centuries and continue to evolve. Ethics is even taught in journalism school. Yet it seems to many that “journalistic ethics” is an oxymoron, and there is some validity to that perception. Here are five interrelated reasons that the news media often seem to have only the most casual relationship with ethics.
- Lax regulation. On the surface it would seem that this shouldn’t even be an issue, given the value most of us place on freedom of expression. Why should the government be involved at all? Even so, much of the news and information content in the US is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and marketing content is policed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (and possibly the FDA, depending upon the item being marketed). Despite their stated missions to protect the public, however, many of the federal “alphabet agencies” often appear to be more pro-business than pro-consumer, with a few notable exceptions. And when it comes to broadcast content in particular, the regulatory agencies seem more interested in protecting the public from foul language and “wardrobe malfunctions” than in addressing accuracy, fairness, and other ethics matters. The result is that the news media are often free to do as they please, as long as they keep it mostly family-friendly.
- Arbitrary enforcement. The regulations that are in place for the media are often arbitrarily enforced, or not enforced at all. And often there are gray areas, legally as well as ethically. Consider, for instance, those ubiquitous late-night infomercials that help keep many stations and networks afloat – a fact that has raised many eyebrows as well as ethical questions. Even more insidious is the “pay for play” content that pops up on talk and interview shows, in which the host interviews a product seller or service provider under the guise of a human-interest story. In any case, combining lax regulations with lackadaisical enforcement makes for relatively fearless media.
- Bottom-line obsession. It could be said that journalism, at least TV journalism, “jumped the shark” when networks figured out that their news divisions could be a profit center. But it’s not just TV – mainstream broadcast, print, and online media are all driven by the need to be profitable. That may seem like an overstatement of the painfully obvious, but it’s a factor that many people forget when they’re grousing about political biases or unbalanced coverage. If a medium is not making money, it’s out of the game, so when big money comes in the door, ethical considerations often fly out the window. Feeding the bottom line often trumps doing “the right thing.”
- Public appetite. Many have lamented that the line between news and entertainment has increasingly blurred – hence the term, “infotainment.” The phenomenon can be attributed to the public’s endless appetite for the sensationalism. Many people are more interested in hearing provocative or entertaining opinions than straight facts or thoughtful analysis. People are drawn to pieces that present a distinct perspective. Where straight news is concerned, important developments are generally presented in a series of unending sound bites that rarely get to the heart of the matter.
- Inertia. “We’ve always done it this way” is a powerful motivator to keep things just the way they are. Reinventing the wheel takes time and money, so the status-quo prevails. It’s better to follow proven formulas as long as they still seem to be working.
The rise of the “alternate media” online has been as much of a good as a bad thing. Sure, the Internet is a playground for a host of partisans and extremists, but it has also given birth to fact-checking/debunking sites that are driven neither by partisan agendas nor corporate money. Alternate media predate the Internet, of course. The “underground newspapers” of the 1960s, for example, often provided more thoughtful coverage than the mainstream dailies. Whether mainstream or alternative, media are far from perfect. Readers, viewers, and browsers are better equipped to separate fact from fiction when they recognize ethical shortcomings and biases, ultimately allowing them to make up their own minds.
Daphne Holmes is a full-time blogger and an information security specialist from http://www.arrestrecords.com. She often writes about issues involving security, psychopath and criminal justice. Daphne enjoys reading fictions—mostly in the vein of popular thrillers and mysteries and spends her spare time in gardening. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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