Media @ McGill

Report: in search of global media ethics

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by Ali Mohamed

If there is one word that has become the currency among journalists and academics in the past 20 years, it is globalization. Numerous theories about globalization abound, and every discipline is seeking to find its epistemological location in the debate. However one defines globalization, a broad acknowledgment exists that the world has undergone rapid change in the past decades and continues to do so. Suarez-Orozco and Qin-Hilliard (2004) write: “While human lives continue to be lived in local realities, these realities are increasingly being challenged and integrated into larger global networks of relationships”. Human experience is linked to economic realities, social processes, technological and media innovations, and cultural flows that traverse national boundaries with even greater momentum.

Globalization has also brought about significant shifts in the way journalism is conceptualized and operationalized. New technologies associated with an accelerated globalization have changed the definition of journalism and what it means to be a journalist. For media scholars, globalization has come to denote an increased interconnectedness between peoples, cultures, and places, in and through media. One area where the impact of globalization on journalism has not yet been explored to any great degree is that of journalism ethics. In recent years, the challenge of defining a global code of journalism ethics has been a primary concern of media ethicists. In this search, a group of media scholars and leading ethicists from North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa gathered at the University of Stellenbosch at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in South Africa for a roundtable discussion entitled “In search of global media ethics”. The roundtable took place between 15-17 March 2007. The roundtable was co-organized and chaired by Professor Herman Wasserman of the University of Stellenbosch and Professor Stephen J. A. Ward of the University of British Columbia.

Ten full-length research papers, which were circulated in advance of the roundtable, were discussed during ten sessions, each lasting one and one half hours. Every participant was given 15 minutes to present a summary of his or her paper, and a “first responder” was assigned from the group to critique the paper during the following 15 minutes. The remainder of the session consisted of, open discussion. The discussion provided a platform for constructive analysis and valuable feedback for each participant to improve the papers and to explore the question of whether there exists a universal ethics. Pressing questions were raised around the understanding of universal versus particular values in the context of different cultural and religious frameworks.

As a participant of this informative and exciting roundtable, I would like to share my personal experience of what I believe to be the best of the discussions. At the end of three days of discussion, a pattern of ideas seemed to emerge concerning two categories of global media ethics. The first category was a focus on the ongoing discussions of scholarly work concerned with a universal ethics that is global in its understanding and reach. This is the search for those common human values that bind all human beings and on which a normative media theory and ethics can be developed. Clifford Christians' argues in his paper “The ethics of universal being” that protonorms exist that precede their reification into ethical principles. He discusses ethics from the perspective of ontology, an ethics of being that focuses on the primal sacredness of life as a protonorm, which becomes a catalyst for the universal binding of human beings into an organic whole and a common oneness. This principle entails such basic ethical principles as human dignity, truth, and nonviolence. Christians argues that: “Our mutual humanity is energized by moral obligations that activate our conscience toward the bondedness we share inescapably with others.” This ethics of universalism is situated in a rational foundation of morality and moral commitments.

The foundation of moral obligations' argument is built on neuroscience and feminist theory, drawing its focusm from the relationship between care and duty. Lee Wilkins' paper is entitled “Connecting care and duty: How neuroscience and feminist ethics can contribute to understanding professional moral development”. In it, he points out that a decade of work in neuroscience suggests that human beings have a unique cognitive capacity for moral thinking. Because this capacity is species specific, it is therefore universal. Wilkins' argument also suggests that people begin, and continue to develop throughout their lifetimes, as moral beings. This capacity is based on reciprocity and empathy, two concepts that are closely related to feminist philosophy, especially the philosophy of care. However, for professional journalists to make good use of the concept of care, care must be informed by duty as articulated by W.D. Ross (1930). With this framework, Wilkins argues for the existence of four stages of professional moral development, from that of the beginner, with an emphasis on duty, to the experienced professional capable of using both duty and care to reinvigorate and advance the profession and role of journalism in a democracy.

Many of the roundtable discussions supported, and pushed the envelope towards the possibility that intrinsic imperatives exist as the basis of moral philosophy, and thus as the potential foundation for a normative media theory and universality in a globalizing world. My paper, entitled “Journalistic ethics and responsibility in relation to freedom of expression: an Islamic perspective” argues that a basis for the social responsibility of media ethics can be found in the moral philosophy of Islam. Moral ethics can be the parameters by which journalists make their decisions concerning their professional accountability. I use a case study of the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as an example to examine Islamic views about the moral limits of freedom of expression, which I argue can be seen as a strong foundation for a truly transnational media ethics. In relevance to the discussion of the Danish cartoons, Kaarle Nordenstreng summarized preliminary findings of a study on the international examination of the reactions to the Danish cartoons, looking at how the news media in 14 countries (from Europe, North America and Asia) produced definitions about freedom of speech and its limits.

In some of the South African papers, the distinctiveness of ubuntuism (an African moral philosophy) was periodically raised as a framework for African normative media theory. This was the argument of Pieter's paper “Moral philosophy as the foundation of normative media theory: Questioning African Ubuntuism as a framework.” He argues that ubuntuism can be understood as a lived expression of an instinctive moral attitude and predisposition towards seeing and experiencing the self, others, life, and the world in a communitarian way. He notes the following “the practical implications ubuntuism as normative framework may have for what can be seen as universal media practices, constructs and principles related to, for example, freedom of expression, the social responsibility of the media, objectivity, neutrality, etc.”.

Stephen Ward, Professor of Journalism Ethics at the University of British Columbia, outlined a philosophical theory of patriotism as a framework to help journalists understand how they can be patriotic citizens. He defines patriotism and explicates the idea of a moderate patriotism, a democratic patriotism that emphasizes rational principles and ethical ideals. Ward's approach is an attempt to construct a global journalism ethics devoted to building a global democratic community.

The second category, into which the remainder of the papers seemed to fall, focused on particularities and case studies as a way to explore the potential of global media ethics. Moreover, these studies attempted to de-Westernize ethical media theory. Dr. Shakuntala Rao's (SUNY-Plattsburgh) and Dr. Herman Wasserman's (Stellenbosch University) papers dealt with connecting postcolonial theory to debates in media ethics. They argued that little theoretical work from a non-Western perspective has been part of the epistemological discussion of universal ethical principles for media and journalism. In their views, the analysis of media globalization requires a closer examination of the ethical principles advocated by media theorists. Rao and Wasserman each use the critical and interdisciplinary perspective of postcolonial theory to argue that advocates of universal media ethics need to take into account the history of colonialism, the differences of power between nations and peoples, and the importance of indigenous theory. They emphasize that in the non-Western world, the underlying conditions of postcoloniality and indigenous values influence how media professionals and journalists make ethical decisions in matters such as privacy and human dignity. These interpretations present an epistemic challenge to dominant ethical concepts based primarily on Western Enlightenment philosophies.

Other papers in this category focused on the socio-cultural ecology of particular countries, such as Professor Fackson Banda'paper “Negotiating journalism ethics in Zambia: Towards a `glocal' ethics?” He sketched the historical context of Media Councils in Zambia, highlighting three interlocking ethical imperatives, which seem to describe the media-ethical terrain from the colonial period to the present era of globalization. He suggests the possibility of negotiating a “glocal” agenda for journalism ethics. Professor Simon's paper also explores media ethics in the context of social ecology and global features, but in the context of Ethiopia.

As all the participants pointed out, much work is needed and should be done in the area of global media ethics, particularly with respect to the issue of definition (what is and is not ethics), the metaphor of ethics in the context of the universal, normative ethics, metaethics, and descriptive ethics or applied studies. Work also should be undertaken to understand the relationship of the postcolonial, the postmodern, and globalization. Also, another concern comes to mind in relation to media practice: the question of what Karrle Nordenstreng in the roundtable discussions called “dirt reality”—what is the value of human dignity in contemporary dirt reality?

For those interested, the following is a list of the participants of the roundtable discussions:

Fackson Banda (Rhodes University, South Africa): “Negotiating journalism ethics in Zambia: Towards a `glocal' ethics?”

Clifford Christians (Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,US): “The ethics of universal being”

Ying-Chun Hsieh (Department of Journalism, National Chengchi University) and

Ching-Chen Hsieh (Institute of Information Science, Academica Sinica, Taiwan): “The social responsibility of news media—the case of nuclear energy news reporting in Taiwan (draft)”

Pieter Fourie (Department of Communication Science, University of South Africa): “Moral philosophy as the foundation of normative media theory: Questioning African Ubuntuism as A framework”

Ali Mohamed (Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Canada): “Journalistic ethics and responsibility in relation to freedom of expression: an Islamic perspective”

Kaarle Nordenstreng (Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Tampere, Finland): “What is universal in the world of difference?”

Shakuntala Rao (Department of Communications, State University of New York, US): “Postcolonial theory and global media ethics: a theoretical intervention”

Stephen J. A. Ward (School of Journalism, University of British Columbia, Canada): “A theory of patriotism for journalism”

Herman Wasserman (Department of Journalism, University of Stellenbosch): “Finding the global in the particular: Media ethics and human dignity in the postcolony”

Lee Wilkins (School of Journalism, Missouri University, US):

“Connecting care and duty: How neuroscience and feminist ethics can contribute to understanding professional moral development”

Gebremedhin Simon (Faculty of Journalism and Communications, Addis Ababa University): “Media ethics in Ethiopia”

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) has also developed an article on the roundtable discussion “In search of global media ethics”. To read it, please click here.