Category Archives: Ethics and Media

For my Ethics and Media class I have to write a blog post every now and then about different ethical topics. Here are some that I have written.

PR Ethics

Here’s the pretext to this post:

You are a public relations professional for a housing developer. Your company’s next project is multi-family housing for middle-income families. In gathering information related to the project, you find that the land for the complex was the site of a landfill. An EPA report shows very low levels of contaminants that are not life-threatening hazards. You discuss this information with your supervising boss, who is not a public relations professional, and recommend ways to explain the landfill history in promotional materials. Your boss tells you the landfill information is not to be included in the materials. He does not want the issue proactively discussed. What do you do?

When reviewing this case study, it became clear that there was going to be one major conflict of interest. That conflict is between my own PR ethical practices and the demands and personal judgment of my supervisor. Though I’d try very hard to find a common ground first, overall I believe it is my duty as a PR professional to stick to my ethical practices and own moral compass.

 There are numerous ethical issues and conflicts with this situation. In the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics, one of their statements of professional values is Honesty. This value states that PR professionals adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those they represent and in communicating with the public. This housing situation also violates at least two of the PRSA Code Provisions such as Free Flow of Information and Disclosure of Information.

 Core Principle Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making. The intent of this provision is to maintain the integrity of relationships with the media, government officials and the public. It is also to aid with informed decision-making. The guidelines of this provision state that a member shall preserve the integrity of the process of communication and be honest and accurate in all communications. If the supervisor advises the PR professional to not include the landfill information in the materials and does not what the information proactively discussed then that is not being honest or accurate in communicating to the public. Though the contaminants of the land fill are non life-threatening, the public still deserves the right to all of the information and should be able to make an informed decision based off of that information.

 The Code Provision ‘Disclosure of Information’ is very similar in the fact that its intent is to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making. The guidelines of this provision state that a member shall, yet again, be honest and accurate in all communications and to also avoid deceptive practices. Similar to the last provision, leaving out the information that the complex was the site of a landfill in which EPA reports show levels of contamination is deceptive and withholding information from the public. This leads to the failure of being honest and accurate in communications, therefore preventing the public from being able to make informed decisions.

 There are numerous internal and external factors to consider in regards to this case study. I would have to take into consideration the fact that my supervisor is not a PR professional and therefore doesn’t have as good of an understanding about the ethical issues that arise when leaving out the information. I have to consider the fact that I would like to keep my job, though I could only do that by following my boss’s orders. Though it is my duty in my job to listen to my boss, it is also my duty to do my job to the best of my ability, and if I completely disregard the ethics that arise by following my boss’s instructions, then I’m completely ignoring my duty to the public. The fact that the company would be profiting from the multi-housing development also plays a roll in my decision to act ethically.

 Since the clash is between my own PR ethical practices and my supervisor’s demands and personal judgment, what’s coming into conflict is my obligation to serve the company and my own personal beliefs. I do believe that my supervisor’s demands were not thought through clearly and I realize he probably fears that this information would bring harm to the success of this project, but there is a way to possibly satisfy my boss’s instructions and my moral compass, and possibly keep my job, by applying two different types of philosophies to the situation.

 I plan to implement Aristotle’s ‘The Golden Mean’ philosophy to this situation because it’s in everyone’s best interest to find the happy medium in the situation. With this philosophy, I would find the common ground between not revealing anything, as my boss wants, and/or reveal everything and possibly harm the success of the project. The Golden Mean would allow me to reveal only certain things, or the specific things I wanted to reveal. When revealing the information to the public, I would inform them that the land being used is a landfill, though I think a better word such as ‘recycling station’ is necessary. Though I wouldn’t mention that low levels of contamination were found, I would inform them that we looked at the EPA reports of the area and found that they concluded that the site was safe and non life-threatening to live in because we want to ensure the safety of future residents. I believe this philosophy would help me feel okay about being honest with the public, because everything I said is accurate, but it would also satisfy my boss because I kept the information positive.

 Another principle that could be really effective is the Utilitarianism philosophy of John Stuart Mill that states “ everyone should try to act in a way that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.” Though it would upset my boss to disclose the information after being told not to, the public has the right to be informed before the information about contamination comes out from another source. That would damage our company’s credibility and therefore cause more harm than good to the company. By revealing the information, we’re letting the public know that we’ re interested in their safety and well-being, so if they found out we were withholding information, especially after they are giving us their money, it would do serious harm to the reputation of the company. I believe with this philosophy it would be our duty to reveal the history of the land to produce the greatest good and outcome.

 I would not implement these strategies until after I discussed them with my boss. I would explain to him my concerns about withholding the information, and describe to him the reasons why these are our best options. I would hope that he’d see the thought and consideration I put into the situation, and would agree to follow through with one of my strategies, thus, keeping my job. (Woo!) If he still did not agree and decided to tell me to not disclose any of the information, I don’t believe I’d be able to continue working on the project. Obstructing the free flow and disclosure of information is not something I’m ethically comfortable with. 

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Freedom of Speech for Journalists

In America, citizens are privileged to have the freedom of speech. Our First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. Our freedom of speech is something that Americans hold very dear. We have the privilege of being able to say how we feel about our government, even burn an American flag if someone were to feel so inclined. Journalists, as part of the press, have the freedom to report what they see and cover interesting and sometimes scandalous news stories. But, are journalists limited when it comes to their freedom of speech?

 Journalists are required to report the facts from an objective viewpoint. They are not supposed to take sides or write their opinions. Their job is to view both sides of a story and report what they know to be true. Under the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, one of the duties of a journalist is to distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context. I believe that this makes it clear that journalists should abstain from reporting about something they have a biased towards, because it will be much harder for them to remain objective. But, should journalists be prohibited from expressing their opinions in public or joining activists groups, as a way of maintaining their independence and objectivity?

 In my opinion, no, they should not be prohibited from doing these things. If we take away their ability to express their opinions and join interest groups, we’re essentially taking away their First Amendment right. Every human being on the planet has an opinion about something. Every person has a side that they choose over the other. Some people are extremely conservative, while others are far left wing liberals. This includes journalists. Journalists are people just like everyone else. They have opinions and biases, and I think that is okay as long as it doesn’t come through in their writing.

 Writing is a profession just like everything else. In my opinion, if a journalist can cover a story and present both sides and appear unbiased, and he does his job well, then how is it fair to ask him or her to abstain from voicing their opinions when they are in public? They aren’t covering a news story; they are doing this in their own free time.

 I do understand the predicament that if a journalist has an extreme opinion about something they are covering, they may try really hard to appear unbiased and actually sway in the other direction. They over compensate for the opinion they don’t agree with to make sure they are being unbiased, though this actually makes them look like they are biased, but from the other viewpoint.

 Under the SPJ code of ethics, journalists are supposed to avoid conflicts of interest in order to act independently. I believe this is applied to the news stories they cover. Journalists should avoid covering stories that causes a conflict of interest for them. It’s near impossible to cover a story objectively when the journalist is involved with, or has a strong advocacy for something. I don’t believe that code applies to a journalist’s life outside of their job.

 If a journalist isn’t reporting on the activist group they joined, and they aren’t representing their opinion in the stories they cover, then I believe it is completely unfair for them to prohibit a journalist, an American citizen, from expressing their opinion and taking part in activists groups or joining groups they want to advocate for. A journalist’s job is to report the facts to the people, and if they are doing that, and doing their job well, they should be allowed to partake in the freedom of speech amendment that every other American citizen is privileged to.

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Absence of Malice

“Absence of Malice” is essentially a movie about a reporter named Megan Carter who unwittingly slanders a business man named Michael Gallagher in the newspaper she writes for while he is under federal investigation. It is a journalist’s duty to find stories, information and to inform the public, but it is also their duty to do this while following the SPJ code of ethics. Megan Carter struggles with line between doing her job well, and doing it ethically. She also has trouble keeping her personal life and her professional life separate.

 Carter’s unethical reporting begins at the very start of the movie when she takes a file of information that was unofficially leaked to her from an anonymous source. She eventually uses this information to write her initial story. In the SPJ Code of Ethics, it is stated that a reporter should “always question sources’ motives before promising them anonymity.” She should have questioned Rosen who was her source of the strike force about why he left this information sitting on his desk for her to read.

 As it turns out, this leak happened because the investigators wanted to see if they could get any information out of him that would help the investigation and give journalists’ something even more exciting to report on. Most people in the journalism world would call Carter’s coverage of the Diaz case a trial balloon by the D.A.’s office.

 Carter claims she wants to be fair and speak to Gallagher to get his side and opinion before she runs the story. She follows the SPJ Code to “diligently seek out subjects of news stories and give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrong doing.” Once Gallagher doesn’t answer the phone though, she throws this code out of the window and publishes the story anyways. She should have kept calling until she got him to pick up the phone. One call does not suffice in this case.

 Gallagher sees the story and this brings him into the office to complain about this unjust publishing of information. This prompts Carter to go out to lunch with Gallagher to get his side of the story. She blatantly and unethically gathers information at this lunch because she brings a recorder and a photographer with her. Wearing a wire breaks the SPJ Code to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information.” After this, Gallagher’s life seems to be spiraling out of control. This is when Carter starts to date Gallagher and look into his story even more. The SPJ Code to Act Independently has a few bullet points to go along with it, and this breaks just about every one of them.

 Towards the middle of the movie, there is a break in the story in that Theresa Perone came to Carter with an alibi for Gallagher. Gallagher was with her when she was having an abortion. Perone asked to remain anonymous because she was afraid she would lose her job, since she works at a catholic school, and be shunned in her community. Even though Carter did consider the consequences of running the story, she did so after she had already given the information to her editor. She allows the editor to run the story which ends in the death of Theresa Perone via suicide. Though Carter can’t be blamed or be held responsible for someone taking their own life, she should have seen how her actions towards this woman could have adversely affected her. If she would have stuck to the SPJ Code to “minimize harm” this tragedy may have been avoided.

 As the movie continues on after the death of Perone, Carter’s relationship with Gallagher continues to grow which leads to more ethical problems. Getting involved with Gallagher is causing Carter to break the SPJ Code that states, “ Avoid conflicts of interest” and to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity and damage credibility.” Carter also reveals that Rosen was her source of her initial story to Gallagher to somewhat patch her rocky relationship with him. This raises the question of whether or not Carter is even capable of keeping sources anonymity and if she is even trustworthy.

 Carter confronts Gallagher after she learns that he may have some connection of bribery with the D.A. and runs a story about it, yet again, without any solid evidence. Gallagher points out to Carter that she doesn’t report the truth, she just reports what people say. This is a fair point for Gallagher to make because Carter has never once tried to get any legitimate sources to confirm any information she had been given. Almost none of her sources wanted to be cited, so she should have found other sources to confirm the information she had been given. Carter and her editor should have spent less time analyzing which words to use and what details to include, and more time questioning the validity of the story they were trying to publish.

 Though there was sloppy reporting, in the end Carter’s publication of the story leads to the conflicts being sorted out and she attempts to redeem herself by not revealing the FBI man’s identity. But in my opinion, one small act like that does not redeem her of all the unethical practices she took place in over the course of the development of this story. Even though there legally was an “absence of malice and negligence” in the case, I still believe her moral compass was in a whirl, and her personal life and her professional life were far too intertwined to make her a valid news reporter. She acted recklessly and did much more harm than good.

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