Journalism Ethics

Clifford G Christians. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

Journalism ethics is a dynamic and growing field. Ethical issues in news have been debated since the 1890s, but by the 21st century, journalism ethics had become a major enterprise. Textbooks, workshops for media professionals, research, university courses, professors who specialize in ethics are now commonplace. Advertising and public relations ethics, and entertainment ethics are taken seriously too, but journalism ethics is especially strong.

In 1980, following decades of slow advance, journalism ethics received a major boost from two sources that catapulted the field into the new century. In the United States, the Hastings-Carnegie studies of professional ethics in American higher education were completed that year (Hastings Center, 2000). Journalism was included within the domain called professional ethics, along with highstatus occupations such as medicine, law, business, and engineering. It established for media ethics, the baseline statistical measures and many of the issues that we continue to use in research today. It gave to journalism ethics the status of philosophy. Journalism is included in the academic organization that resulted, The Association for Applied and Professional Ethics. The Journal of Mass Media Ethics, which began publication in 1985, contributes to professional ethics as a whole, not just narrowly to the ethics of reporting.

Many Voices, One World also appeared in 1980. Sean MacBride, the UN delegate from Ireland, spearheaded a study for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) of international media policies and professional practices. It emphasized the developing world as an equal partner with industrial nations, insisting on the rights of the South to speak for itself in its own terms. Mass communication ethics passed the international watershed and has been global of necessity ever since.

Since journalism ethics has become a large and complicated field of study, it is divided somewhat differently by various authors and thinkers. But generally, four important ethical issues dominate the agenda for 21st-century communication: truth, technology, social philosophy, and universals. The health and vitality of journalism ethics for the future depends on the sophistication with which these complicated issues are handled.


The press’s obligation to truth is of paramount concern at present. Truth telling is the generally accepted standard of the media professions. Communicators are to be specialists in truth in the way politicians ought to specialize in justice and business leaders in stewardship. Credible language, in fact, is pivotal to journalism’s very existence. But living up to the truth ideal is nearly impossible these days. Budget constraints, deadlines, self-serving sources, and the frenetic pace all complicate the production of truth in newswriting. Our impressive technology generates almost unlimited news copy and requires difficult choices without the opportunity to sift through the intricacies of telling the truth.

The prevailing view of truth as accurate information is too narrow for today’s social and political complexities, though objectivity remains entrenched in ordinary practices of news production and dissemination. With this historic scheme under duress, some heavy thinking by both practitioners and academics is critical for transforming the concept of truth intellectually.

A more sophisticated concept of truth is disclosure, getting to the heart of the matter. Already in 1947, the famous Hutchins Commission Report, A Free and Responsible Press, had called for this alternative. It advocated a deeper definition of the press’s mission as “a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer contends correctly in his Ethics (1995, chap. 5) that a truthful account includes the context, motives, and presuppositions involved. Truth as authentic disclosure means, in other words, to strike gold, to get at the core issue, the heart of the matter, to see the essence of things (Pippert, 1989). When the truth is told, the response is “You’re right. Now I get it.”

The best journalists understand from the inside the attitudes, culture, and language of the persons and events on their news beat. In the process of weaving a tapestry of truth, reporters’ disclosures will be credible and realistic to those being covered. Rather than reducing social issues to the financial and administrative problems that politicians define, the truth principle requires that the news media disclose the depth and nuance that enable readers and viewers to identify the fundamental issues themselves.

During a formative period for the media in the 1920s to 1950s, a dichotomy between facts and values dominated Western thinking. Genuine knowledge was identified with the physical sciences, and the objectivity of physics and mathematics set the standard for all forms of knowing. Journalistic morality became equivalent to unbiased reporting of neutral data. Presenting unvarnished facts was heralded as the standard of good performance. The best news mirrored reality. Objective reporting was not merely a technique, but withholding value judgments was considered a moral imperative. With scientific naturalism being the ruling paradigm in the academy, universities institutionalized the convention of objective reporting in journalism curricula.

Objectivity has become increasingly controversial as the working press’s professional standard. Rather than surrendering the idea of objectivity altogether and defining journalism ethics without it or alongside it, Stephen Ward (2004) argues for transforming it into pragmatic objectivity. This is another alternative instead of defining truth as authentic disclosure. It is an idea that warrants ongoing discussion, analysis, and application. Pragmatic objectivity is a “modest conception of truth that is closest to common sense” (p. 267). It understands “truth as the slow process of coming to know more and more things about our empirical world and to grasp them in a more accurate and comprehensive manner” (p. 271). Ward correctly challenges professionals to participate in its definition and implementation.


Ethics has its roots and longest history in print journalism. But the field is challenged in the 21st century by the revolution in media technology. The communication technologies that produce and distribute information today have become an economic paradise. Clusters of high-tech communication firms are remapping the planet. Previous geographical alignments organized by political power are being reordered in terms of electronic megasystems.

The revolution is not taking place in abstraction outside of everyday affairs. The menagerie of fiber optics, supercomputer data, and satellite technology, though inescapably global, is local and personal as well. Television, CDs, and DVDs, online databases, iPod, Facebook, MySpace, video games, cellular telephones, and virtual reality—the electronic highway has become the everyday world of advanced industrial societies. Mass media technologies are converging into digital formats, Internet chat rooms, multiuser domains (MUD), Web-based publications, and hyperlink—together they are producing new forms of human interaction. Public life in the 21st century is being altered in complex ways through ubiquitous multimedia technologies, and ethics is essential for coming to grips with them. Language is indispensable to our humanness and the social order; therefore, when our communication capacity is mediated in fundamentally different ways than before, the impact is substantial and far-reaching. Accounting for the social influence of media technologies is a historical and empirical task but clearly the domain of journalism ethics as well. And its grounding in print technology means that the field needs to be updated and transformed.

Historically, communication ethics arose in conjunction with concerns related to the print media, so that it requires substantial work to extend the original developments to the more prominent digital technologies. Print news and the ethical standards for newspaper reporters were the first concerns of anything that could be called communication ethics. The harm that an unregulated press could do to society was first explicitly linked to ethical principles in North America and Europe during the 1890s, when critics began assessing journalism philosophically. These initial forays blossomed into the first systematic work in communication ethics during the 1920s in the United States. Four major books emerged from America’s heartland during that decade, their authors among a Who’s Who of journalism luminaries: Nelson Crawford’s Ethics of Journalism (1924), Leon Flint’s The Conscience of the Newspaper (1925), William Gibbon’s Newspaper Ethics (1926), and Albert Henning’s Ethics and Practices in Journalism (1932). These authors understood ethics as a scholarly enterprise and left a permanent legacy. In Europe also, several ethical issues emerged in the early 20th century. Sensationalism was considered contrary to the public service role of the newspaper. Freebies and junkets, scourged by media critics already in the 19th century, were treated more systematically in the context of rising business competition. Together, they carved out much of the structure that dominates journalism ethics across Europe and North America in the early 21st century and, with some nuances, in various regions around the world.

But those intellectual roots of press ethics were formed when print technology was the exclusive option. Most of the heavyweights in communication ethics in industrialized democracies have shown a predilection for news, and news in its literary rather than electronic broadcast form. Many of the perpetual issues in media ethics—invasion of privacy, conflict of interest, sensationalism, confidentiality of sources, and stereotyping—get their sharpest focus in a print context. Meanwhile, newspapers outside the mainstream have scarcely been considered, making exceptions such as Patrick Washburn’s book The African American Newspaper (2007) an important one for ethics.

The media situation changed in the late 20th century. Television became the primary source of news for most people, and information radio, such as National Public Radio, became vital. Research emphasized the news function, tackled cases and problems from broadcasting, the wire service agencies, and documentaries, in addition to everyday reporting. And beyond news, the electronic media’s role in persuasion and entertainment became pervasive, socially significant, and ethically charged. The result was burgeoning research in the ethics of public relations, organizations, face-to-face encounters, the music business and cinema, libraries, book publishing, confidentiality in computer storage, fiction, new media technologies, the mass-mediated sports industry, and more.

The dark side of ethical research into this expansive field of all media functions has been faddishness and fragmentation. However, the widening spectrum did open new insights and fresh approaches to issues that lie beneath the surface. Deception and economic temptation were seen as common in all mass-mediated communication. Sexism and racism are deep-seated everywhere. Reporters often failed to recognize sensationalism in the news until they confronted the difference between gratuitous violence and realism in the entertainment media. Invasion of privacy, easily excused in news, becomes an insufferable evil when government agencies access confidential information from data banks without permission. The challenge for journalism ethics yet today is to demonstrate how ongoing ethical quandaries ought to be examined across a diverse range of media technologies and functions—not only in print and broadcast media but also with digital technologies primarily.

In outlining an agenda for communication ethics in terms of the entire spectrum of media technologies rather than print journalism alone, several issues emerge as primary. Each can profit from the past, though several are new or have such dramatic intensity at present that thinking rooted in the communication ethics of the 20th century is no longer directly relevant. Meanwhile, the electronic media have achieved some important successes. The Internet makes it possible for people who disagree with government policies to unite and protest against them. The Landmine Ban Treaty among the world’s nations, for example, could not have happened without new media technologies. Television was the stimulus for humanitarian intervention in Somalia and prison reform in the U.S. military. Strengthening the media’s role in democracy is important for journalism ethics while identifying the negative dimensions that are already obvious.

Violence in television and in films has been a major ethical issue for decades. Internet technology has complicated the problem with hate speech and terrorism. In the United States, for example, studies have shown that by high school graduation, the average 17-year-old will have seen 18,000 murders in movies and on television. From the horrific shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 to similar tragedies in other states and countries before and since, teenagers who slaughter their classmates and teachers, and then kill themselves, are linked by debate or research to the culture of violence in which they live. While the United States leads the world in the amount of violence on television, television programming in all parts of the globe contains a great deal of violence, including a high percentage of guns as weapons and the terrible consequences only hinted at or not even depicted at all. Gun-related deaths in the United States have reached the level of a public health epidemic.

Violence is a serious ethical issue because it violates the persons-as-ends principle. The 19th-century ethicist Immanuel Kant made a standard formulation still used today—people must treat all other rational beings as ends in themselves and never as means only. The gratuitous cheapening of human life to expand ratings is a reprehensible mistreatment of human beings. From the persons-as-ends perspective, there is a special concern about the sexual violence so common in music video, horror movies (especially slasher films), and video games. Sadistic, bloodthirsty torture in pornography is a particularly offensive form of dehumanization.

A new dimension of violence has emerged with hate speech on the Internet. In 1995, the former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader Don Black established Stormfront, the first white supremacist Web site. As access to the Internet became less expensive and creating Web pages much simpler, the number of Web sites and people visiting them grew exponentially. Mirroring this growth, Web sites promoting various kinds of bigotry have multiplied dramatically, now numbering in the thousands. In the past, hate was promoted through crude graffiti and low-quality pamphlets. Bulk mailings to even a few hundred people were difficult. But with the Internet, slick Web sites devoted to hate are available to a potential audience of millions. Though late in the 20th century the KKK was fragmented more than at any time since World War II, its factions are now using the Internet to revitalize the organization as the so-called “Klan without robes.” The KKK sites maintain and defend the superiority of the white race and warn against interracial marriage. Jews are vilified as Satan’s people, and immigration is condemned as an uncontrolled plague. Numerous neo-Nazi Web sites promote the anti-Semitic racism of Adolf Hitler, with the National Alliance being the most prominent Hitlerian organization in the United States thanks to the Internet. Jews are blamed for inflation, media brainwashing, and government corruption, with blacks depicted as criminals and rioters. A host of Web sites are devoted to Holocaust revisionism, denying the murder of Jews in World War II. Web sites of hate groups that claim religious legitimacy are flourishing as well. The Christian Identity site is virulently racist and anti-Semitic. The World Church of the Creator calls nonwhites physiologically subhuman. The site for White Aryan Resistance rails against the nonwhite birthrate. Other sites are anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim or militantly anti-abortion.

This is one example of how digital technology challenges journalism ethics in a new way. In dealing with the various moral problems in the media, some ethical theories are more appropriate than others, and different theories do not always give the same answer. But hate speech on the Internet is contradicted by all major theories without exception. This across-the-board condemnation suggests that all personal, educational, and policy efforts to combat Internet hate speech are permissible, even mandatory, but obviously without the revenge and aggressiveness that contradict good ends.

The worldwide reach of high-speed electronic technologies has made communication systems and institutions of global scope possible. Dealing with these new entities requires a technologically sophisticated, cross-cultural ethics commensurate with the worldwide reach of the media. In the process of identifying and responding to specific issues, communication and media ethics must make the questions raised by technology a central focus for the 21st century. As true of professional ethics generally, journalism ethics ought to become international in character. In place of its largely Western, gender-biased, and monocultural traditions, media ethics of the future must be ecumenical, gender inclusive, and multicultural.

A diversified, transnational ethics, with a level playing field rooted in equal respect for all cultures, is by no means unproblematic and involves an act of faith. The claim that all cultures have something important to say to all human beings is a hypothesis that cannot be validated concretely. Yet it serves as an open horizon for moving transnational study forward. Of the various types of applied and professional ethics, journalism ethics has its roots most deeply in language, culture, and human dialogue. In that sense, a multicultural style is required for its own identity.

Here is a way to summarize and clarify technology as today’s challenge for journalism ethics. Over the history of journalism ethics, decisive changes have occurred in media technology from print to electronic. In the 21st century, another major shift is under way to digital. When journalism ethics entered its major phase in the 1980s, broadcast technology dominated our media systems; presently, the important ethical concerns focus on digital technology instead. Journalism ethics, as it took hold with MacBride and the Hastings-Carnegie studies, was rooted in print technology.

In the digital era now, ethics must establish its agenda in terms of the distinctive properties of this new technological system. An early version of this task was the special issue of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics in 1998 devoted to new media technologies. A double issue of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics in 2003, “Virtual Reality and Communication Ethics,” developed the idea that the virtual world as the innovative edge of online technologies is the most advanced context at present for coming to grips with ethics. David Gunkel’s Thinking Otherwise: Philosophy, Communication, Technology (2007) centers on ethics throughout, philosophical ethics and media ethics both. He develops a model of moral responsibility within the context of the newest innovations in information technology. Michael Bugeja’s Living Ethics Across Media Platforms (2007) identifies moral issues that are similar across the various media technologies.

Based on this scholarship to date, the ethics agenda needs to be developed in full for the digital world of search engines, online networking, and computer databases. Some issues are new, some amplify or transform the ethics of the past, and others create new levels of complexity heretofore unknown. Regarding the latter, cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism have been given special urgency since September 11, 2001. Long-standing issues have taken on a new complexity or orientation, such as Web-based surveillance and theft of private information. The ethics of representation now has a different orientation with gender, race, and religion debated in anonymous cyberspace. Equitable allocation of information technologies is one moral problem of justice, confronting as it does the injustice of the digital divide between the information rich and poor.

Other problems are rooted in computer technology itself, such as the ethics of blogging and online journalism. Blogging is only possible in an age of sophisticated technology. As a digital revolution at home and at work, it requires special emphasis in developing ethical principles that are appropriate. A code of blogging ethics developed by Martin Kuhn and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication focuses on the struggle to build human relationships and communities in cyberspace. The quality of interaction by the participants is considered the core duty that a code of ethics must address ( Together these dramatic technological changes offer an obvious challenge for developing ethical guidelines that are appropriate to them.

Social Philosophy

The emphasis in journalism ethics throughout the 20th century was on professional morality, on the character of news, and on the values and structures of news organizations. The classroom and research focused on the insider: reporters and sources, problems of daily newsgathering, the economic temptations to put circulation and audience above the best possible reporting, the press’s invasion of privacy, and so forth. Case studies were typically recommended for teaching since they deal with concrete issues and actions. For the bulk of its history to date, the agenda of journalism ethics has been set by the profession, its struggles and problems as understood from the inside out and the bottom up.

The challenge for the 21st century is grounding journalism ethics first of all in the general morality. The rationale for a practitioner orientation to date is obvious. The complexity of the field and its changing dynamics require ongoing concern for professional morality. However, rather than developing rules for experts, media ethics needs to be preoccupied now with the moral dimension of everyday life. The venerable issues of social ethics should determine the agenda (e.g., justice, human dignity, truth telling, no harm to the innocent), and journalistic practice should be understood in that larger context. How the moral order works itself out in community formation must be the focus, not what practitioners consider virtuous. Rather than refining journalism codes of ethics, the ultimate standard for media professionals is the moral life as a whole. With this broader orientation, reporters and management would operate in the same arena as their readers, viewers, and clients. The compelling need for this century is a citizen’s ethics rather than a profession-based ethics per se.

To develop journalism ethics in these larger terms, democracy as a political system ought to be the framework for understanding the media. The important book The Press, edited by Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (2005), gives us the right perspective here. Democracy in this volume is the context in which the structure and function of the news media are understood. The health of journalism by itself is not the main concern of The Press but the vitality of democratic politics. As the authors put it, journalism is the means, and the end is democracy. Rather than provide audiences and readers with information, the press’s aim is citizens who are literate about democracy. In that sense, ethical journalism is the foundation of genuine democracy.

Journalism ethics is not only concerned with the flourishing of democratic practice, but it also has a stake in democratic theory as well. For the 21st century, thinking on democracy is moving beyond individual rights and government policy to cosmopolitanism. Political theorists are seeking to make democracy more global, more responsive to and more viable in a world where political participation extends beyond traditional nation-states and requires forms of democracy not bound by geography. David Held (1995), among others, focuses on what he understands to be a new and pressing need for a global democratic order stronger than the United Nations, without discounting the importance of the local, regional, and national. Cosmopolitanism sets the highest and most accurate standard at present as the democratic context for understanding the ethics of news—particularly Appiah’s (2006) version, which deeply engages diversity.

In fact, diversity is one of the central issues in journalism ethics and society at present. Indigenous languages and ethnicity have come into their own. Ethnicity has replaced Marxist class struggle as the most powerful force of the 21st century. Sects and religious fundamentalists insist on recognition. One’s culture is more salient at present than one’s nationality. Muslim immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the population in France, and they are not interested in full assimilation into French language and politics. A total of 30,000 Navajos live in Los Angeles, isolated from their native nation and culture. The nomadic Fulani, searching for good pasture throughout sub-Saharan West Africa, are held together by clan fidelity, but their political future hangs in the balance. In contrast to the melting pot of the previous century, immigrants to the United States in the 21st century insist on maintaining their own cultures, religions, and languages. The majority of European origin is under siege in North America. In the United States, for example, 1.5 million people from across the globe become new citizens every year, but debates over immigration policy are acrimonious and irresolute. More than 50% of the schoolchildren in New York State belong to non-Caucasian ethnic groups. In cultural terms, south-central Los Angeles is a continent away from residential Hollywood. A subculture of Chaldean Christians with Iraqi roots owns 1,500 small stores in Detroit, Michigan. Amish farmers in Pennsylvania and the Amana Colonies in Iowa struggle to maintain their identity. Consensus under the melting-pot thesis holds little salience.

On a global scale, according to anthropologists, nearly 20,000 culture groups are locked away from the social mainstream. For the most part, these hidden peoples exist without recognition or adequate representation. Urdu-speaking Muslims are aliens in the state of Punjab in India. Since winning independence in 1989, the Belorussians have had little success in creating a sovereign state; for 70 years, their history and language had not been taught. Their identity crisis reaches even to the parliament in Minsk. Only the remnants of Mayan culture survive in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, obscured under the government’s official commitment to the Spanish language and to nationalism. Anthony Cortese (1990) documents how deeply moral commitments are embedded in social relations—his cross-cultural evidence including among others an Israeli kibbutz, Kenyan village leaders, Tibetan monks, and folk societies in Papua New Guinea and India. Ethnic identity is now considered essential to cultural vitality. As a result, social institutions such as the mass media are challenged to develop a healthy cultural pluralism in their thinking, organizational structure, and reporting practices.

If the task of ethical journalism is to enable local communities to speak in their own language and to participate actively in public life, what glue is left to hold us together? With cultural identity coming into its own from Miami, Florida, to East Asia, is ethnic conflict inevitable? The Hutu and Tutsi massacres in Rwanda, Russian soldiers shooting people in the streets of a Chechen village, and brutal warfare in Bosnia are not stories about tribal disputes only but also about ethnic cleansing. Is anarchy likely?

Therefore, the question is whether in a democratic view of public life and the press, we are referring to local cultures only. Without a commitment to the common human good, we will not avoid tribalism. The issue for ethical journalism is not communal values per se but universal ones—not the common good understood as the community’s good but common in its richest universal meaning.

To make ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity come true in the 21st century, media programming and policies should move away from melting-pot homogeneity and replace it with the politics of recognition. Obviously, news cannot be ethical unless the challenge of cultural diversity is met, and this requires a fundamental shift from homogeneity to recognition. The basic issue is whether democracies discriminate against their citizens in an unethical manner when major institutions fail to account for the identity of their members. In what sense should the specific cultural and social features of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Buddhists, Jews, the physically disabled, or children publicly matter? Should not public institutions ensure that democratic citizens share an equal right to political liberties and due process without regard to race, gender, or religion? The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor considers the issue of recognizing multicultural groups politically as among the most urgent and vexing on the democratic agenda. Beneath the rhetoric is a fundamental philosophical dispute about the ethics of recognition. As Taylor (1994) puts it, “Non-recognition or miscrecognition can inflict harm, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted and reduced mode of being. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need” (p. 26). Guaranteeing that people have their own voice, define their own identity, and are respected as equals on their own terms is a foundational issue for democracy and for the news media, which constitute the public arena where ethnic identity is represented and understood.

News professionals are generally committed to the flourishing of particular cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, but this commitment needs to be applied more aggressively. Paul Lester and Susan Ross’s Images That Injure (2003) has become a staple of instruction for students and practitioners toward that goal. Downing and Husband (2005) help fulfill this agenda also with their literature review of three decades of racial stereotyping as background for proposing a new “multi-ethnic public sphere” model for representing race. And Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki (2000) illustrate a deep application of cultural pluralism to race. Race in the United States remains a preeminent issue, and their research indicates a broad array of white racial sentiments toward African Americans as a group. They emphasize not the minority of outright racists but the perplexed majority. On a continuum from comity (acceptance) to ambivalence to animosity and finally racism, a complex ambivalence most frequently characterizes the majority. Whites bring combinations of misinformation, emotional needs, assumptions, and experiences to their thinking about race. They may believe, for example, that blacks face discrimination but argue against welfare spending out of a suspicion of government programs. Correcting white ignorance and dealing with ambiguities hold the most promise for the media. There is little evidence that the media, in either news or entertainment, focus on ambivalence and pull their viewers and readers toward comity. In Entman and Rojecki’s study, the media did little to enhance racial understanding among the ambivalent majority most open to it. The challenge for the media is to provide the news and programming that this important swing group needs to move policy and institutions toward cultural pluralism. For journalism ethics, ethnic identity cannot be a halfhearted pursuit. We are fully human agents through language. Language makes community possible; it is the public agent through which our identity is realized. The lingual dimension forms humans and their relationships into meaningful units, and its vitality or oppression inevitably conditions our well-being. In that sense, the media as our primary form of public communication are a crucial arena through which ethnic pluralism comes into its own.


It is imperative that ethics in the 21st century be broad and strong enough to match the media’s international scope. Fortunately for the field’s long-term vitality, theoretical models of the universal are being developed for media ethics, as they are by academics in philosophy and the social sciences. Thomas Cooper’s Communication Ethics and Global Change (1989) was the first comprehensive survey of journalism ethics across cultures by an international network of media professionals and teachers from 13 countries. The quest for truth, desire for responsibility, and call for free expression were identified as three major areas of worldwide concern. Another research strategy he developed for understanding our universal humanity is learning from indigenous groups (Cooper, 1998), noting in particular their sophisticated understanding of truth and their integration of heart and mind. The Christians and Traber (1997) study of ethical principles in 13 countries on four continents affirms the sacredness of life as a universal principle. Hamelink (2000) appeals to international human rights for moral guidance vis-à-vis cyberspace technology. Stephen Ward’s (2005) global thinking revolves around a modified version of social contract theory. Shakuntala Rao and Herman Wasserman (2007) use postcolonial theory as their framework. Lee Wilkins (2008) has established neuroscience as a theoretical framework for moral universals. None of them promotes transcendental metaphysical abstractions, but they recognize diversity across cultures by keeping ethics rooted in everyday experience.

Individual rights are the axis around which most journalism ethics has revolved—individuals making decisions as professionals and then being held accountable for them. While this focus on personal responsibility covers a large amount of everyday experience, the global society taking shape in the 21st century needs a broader and more comprehensive framework than individualism. The most radical alternative to individual rights is universal human solidarity. The beginning point of universals in ethical theory is global oneness. Starting at this end of the spectrum does not ignore individual decisions but comes to them from the larger perspective of the transnational and the needs of human beings as a whole.

What could this possibly mean? What is human solidarity? What are some universal principles on which we could all agree? Are there common goods in spite of the splendid variety of human ingenuity? If we are to foster good journalism on the local level, we need a vocabulary of master norms and of universal values, not lame appeal to community standards only. In its theorizing and everyday practice, journalism must advocate principles that hold true universally. Rather than either universals or communities, they need to feed from one another. If adjudicating among individual rights is often impossible, we confront the same issue among competing communities: Which one is legitimate, and which ones are not?

Universal values provide a framework for bringing our communities into perspective and under judgment as necessary. Obviously, not every community ought to be celebrated. Humans tend to make their local situations supreme and in the process overlook racism, sexism, and injustice within. Universal values are a way of keeping our common human solidarity as the ultimate and of restricting particular conventions on the local level to secondary status. Cultures need norms beyond their own heroes and ideals to be self-critical. An outsider lets us know that we are limited. In fact, without norms that are more than contingent, dehumanization cannot finally be condemned except on the grounds of personal preference or emotional appeal. Without a commitment to common principles, history is but a contest of arbitrary power.

Universal principles in the past have proved to be oppressive. They typically have been designed from a certain perspective—Western, male, and abstract, for example—and then imposed on others in a patronizing manner. The universals that are legitimate in the 21st century are not rigid, formal, and domineering but respect the diversity of the human race even while seeking commonness among peoples everywhere.

One such master principle is human dignity, most widely known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948 by UNESCO:

  • Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. (Preamble)
  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. (Article 1)
  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set for in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Article 2)

Every child, woman, and man has sacred status without exception. Inspired in large part by the atrocities of World War II, the Preamble refers to “barbarous acts which … outraged the conscience of mankind.” The Declaration is generally considered the most universal expression of the moral aspirations of the civilized world.

Humans are a unique species. No society has open hunting season on people: “In October you can shoot three as long as you have a license.” On the principle of our unassailable dignity as human beings without exception, we begin to articulate notions of justice and public policy. Periodically, there are brief attempts to make human rights across the board the centerpiece of government action, and this is the master norm of human dignity at work. When journalists are serious about diversity and gender equality without stereotyping, they are acting on the principle of human dignity.

Human rights, as worked out among the world’s peoples in the United Nations, isone basis for the cross-cultural ethical principle of human dignity. Another strategy for establishing human dignity as a common good across cultures is rooted in the sacredness of human life. The German philosopher Hans Jonas (1984) argued that when giving birth to others, we do not begin with a neutral calculus trying to decide whether to take responsibility for this new human being. Rather our primal instinct is toward preserving life, protecting it, and giving unquestioned commitment to it. Parental duty to children is an archetype of responsibility among the human species—that is, irrevocable and without negotiating the terms every time some new person appears. Out of this notion of the sacredness of life emerge ethical theories about not harming the innocent as an obligation that is cosmic, primordial, and irrespective of our roles or contracts.

Human dignity illustrates the manner in which certain norms have a broad, taken-for-granted character. Given the oneness of the human species, its universal solidarity is the basic principle of ethics and the basis of all human communication. Our common humanness we share inter-subjectively as a moral demand across cultural, racial, and historical boundaries. Instead of constructing a purely rational foundation for morality, our mutual human existence is the touchstone of ethics. In this view, ethics is as old as human beings and a primordial force in human existence. Given the social nature of communication, the community’s life story is the home of ethics. Society is inconceivable without an overriding commitment to each other’s dignity. As an agent of our common life, the public press has no choice but to honor this master norm as well. It does not merely mean that we expand international reporting, though thinking globally is a necessary condition of adequately understanding the common good.

A commitment to universals does not eliminate all differences in what we think and believe. Journalism ethics grounded in universals is complex, and in an era of global communications, it inevitably involves pluralism. The issue is whether a community’s values affirm human dignity. As our ideologies, philosophies of life, and beliefs are debated within the public sphere, some agreements will emerge that form a common good. While there are differences in nuance and application, the issue is whether at the deepest level we honor human dignity.

Communities tend to be hidebound and turned inward. To better shape journalism ethics by universal criteria, more experiments are needed that come to grips with community life in global terms. Some glimmers of that consciousness are emerging over the environment; overusing our share of the world’s resources has now taken on moral resonance. Rather than local communities focusing on themselves in isolation, journalism can initiate public debate on issues such as this one.

The news media as agents of community formation stitch the issues into a universal norm, engrafting ordinary questions about community life into our human oneness. As a result, cultural diversity does not become self-centered tribalism in the extreme but an opportunity for helping communities work constructively from their own backyard and from the bottom up. In the process, local groups still make decisions for themselves, while resonating in principle with other human beings across the globe who are struggling with human values of a similar sort. Universal solidarity and our home territories are all rooted in the same human spirit and revolve around the same axis. At least it is possible to escape the excesses of individual rights and to avoid tribalism, but only if the common good is understood correctly and implemented.


After a history of steady work for three-fourths of a century, journalism ethics was established by 1980 as a legitimate enterprise and reasonably well-known in both the academy and the profession. With the dramatic growth in the field since then, journalism ethics has a wealth of resources at present for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. Textbooks and specialized courses in ethics are abundant; the codes of ethics for news are up-to-date and reasonably sophisticated; and increasingly, reporters with a specialty in ethics are writing about moral issues with clarity and relevance.

All these dimensions of journalism ethics need ongoing attention to keep the field fresh and influential. But the four areas emphasized in this review are of particular importance and warrant the most attention.

Truth is a difficult concept to advocate or even understand in this postmodern age where reason and facts are no longer considered legitimate. The concepts of truth proposed here for journalism ethics take account of today’s epistemology and can be defended even in an environment of skepticism about truth. But given these complexities, truth deserves extra effort in journalism ethics. And this review takes the same general approach regarding technology. It is highlighted in this overview because the world is now fundamentally different technologically than before. The media have radically shifted from print and broadcast forms to the dominance of digital technologies. Since our work to date in ethics has been oriented to earlier technologies, the field needs to be rethought in terms of online cyberspace. While journalism ethics has always had a social dimension, the complicated demands of multiculturalism and diversity are more accented than ever and make it necessary to give specific emphasis to ethnicity and gender today. And the fourth area accented in this overview also has a new urgency—developing universal principles that are equal to the global media, and to shifts in international politics from a Western axis to the developing world instead.

It is hoped that with that demanding agenda, journalism ethics can attract the best minds in both academia and the profession.