Toeing The Thinnest Possible Line Between Right & Wrong: Media Ethics Primer
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In an advertising-driven world where media organizations increasingly identify themselves as businesses first, the ethics line has become blurry in favor of the bottom line. Ethics are eroding fast and risk disappearing or becoming a remote memory in the minds of older generations. There was a time in history when media professionals spoke of a complete separation between “sales and editorial” in the same tone as the separation of “church and state.”
In a perfect world, a respectful media organization claiming “objectivity” as its motto, will distance itself and its editorial judgment and decisions from its advertisers. For example, you cannot be reporting about a product and run an advertisement promoting the same product in the same news bulletin. Same with a magazine or newspaper, this practice is a clear conflict of interest. Media professionals as well as educated consumers will easily recognize such practice as unethical.
Yet, in the digital age, advertising for products pops up constantly as you are reading an article or watching a video. Websites now target their advertising directly at you based on your preferences gleaned from internet surfing history as well as your online interactions! If the media organization is engaging in these targeted campaigns –and we are seeing more evidence that it is the case- it is cause for concern.
In news organizations, the business and sales sides have been creeping in for decades trying to make money where consumer trust has been established by hard-working editorial staff. Advertisers pay top dollars for a spot in a respectful newscast, imagine their glee if they receive positive coverage on that newscast. Now imagine for a second, if they could “buy” that coverage! As awful a proposition this might be to many media professionals, it is becoming a reality as the advertising world devises new ways to creep into programming and executives tell their staff to “look the other way” if they are interested in a paycheck at the end of the month. When Sales, Politics, Ideology or Agenda signs your paycheck, you are doomed and your claim to objectivity, fairness, balance and transparency becomes a fallacy!
You’ve undoubtedly heard of Sponsored Programming. You’ve also heard of Native Advertising and Branded Content. All these are different names and forms to sneak in paid advertising into regular editorial content. How each form is practiced can range from the acceptable in modern-day media to appalling and unethical. When full disclosure is provided and a media organization is transparent with its audience about such practices, you can imagine that it is acceptable. Additionally, one hopes that a neutral buffer is maintained between the advertiser and the editorial content. When you watch an Infomercial for a product or a travel show sponsored by an airline or a nation’s tourism ministry, and the disclaimers are everywhere that this is “sponsored by such and such,” do not expect any critical or negative content to be in the program. Understand that the advertiser paid for the production of such program as a form of advertising. It’s usually a decent amount of non-harmful features created to entertain you while promoting the advertiser.
Even native advertising is becoming harder to discern because major respected organizations are adopting it- and without disclaimers or warnings to their respective audiences. This is slowly becoming an obvious trap that media consumers keep falling into especially with the popularity of social networks and the rush by everybody from businesses to politicians, artists, journalists, writers, budding musicians, young, old, unemployed, trolls, celebrities, and many others fighting for the eyeballs and trying to attract them and sell them something, a product, an ideology- even a lie. On the Internet there is everything and it’s not always obvious when we are being spammed or scammed, when we are told the truth or lied to. It is up to us to know what is genuine and what is not.
Media ethics is a wide topic that covers a lot more than how the business side should not dictate or distort the editorial mission of an organization. It is also about how content is handled and how it is shared with the audience. It is about what is acceptable and what is not and why. What to share with your audience, how to share it and in what amounts and what form to share it in is part of each organization’s code of conduct. They vary from one medium to the other depending on many factors, rules and regulations, cultural taboos, and the amount of freedoms afforded and protected under the law.
In the U.S., media communications are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Other important players are the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association, and the Motion Picture Association of America. While media outlets operate freely and make decisions based on their own specific code of ethics, the FCC oversees that laws are upheld and upgraded as necessary; that is how all organizations operating, following the agreed-upon rating system and adhere to borders enforcing when sexual, violent or otherwise youth-inappropriate content will be part of the package. Organizations also use the disclaimer system to warn viewers or readers of the inappropriateness of some content or that the upcoming content could be considered unacceptable to some. All these are measures that are put in place to protect consumers especially those who are too young to protect themselves.
As a result of years of experience and consistently updated regulations, it is understood that gory images are not to be shown in a sensational way. Long shots of bloody scenes, decapitated bodies, graphic shots from war and conflict zones are usually an area of great ethics debates in newsrooms. Do you show how awful war is or do you “sanitize” the images and let the scenes look like a well-organized, short and clean incursion? In the best world, you report the news as is without a filter except that of good taste. You must show the extent of suffering and destruction and loss but everything needs to be relative.
Watching some media organizations in the MENA region is a practice in ethical nonconformity. Depending on the channel, some massacres are exaggerated or downplayed. Agendas dictate whether images will be shown raw or edited. Victims are shown without much respect for their privacy or the sensitivity of their loved ones. Names of victims and casualties are often released before their next of kin are appropriately informed of their death or whereabouts. Graphic bloody scenes are a staple not the exception. They are shown without limit and sometimes in gory details through the abuse of the Zoom-In button. Violence exists not only in newscasts, but in TV soap operas as well and there is no particular regard to what time of day they are shown or replayed. Journalists pride themselves on being friends with politicians and artists they cover on a daily basis totally disregarding how this is a flagrant conflict of interest. Gifts are exchanged openly without remorse or even the need for disclosure.
Transparency in media is a virtue. Look at all scandals or media mayhem, you’ll find that at the root of the problem was some kind of special interest that was not disclosed in time.
My own disclaimer is that some of what I said here is already considered obsolete and completely dismissed in some MENA joints. Still, I believe in the media ethics I practice and teach. I know that I’m not alone, and I hope that our numbers rise with time. I do believe that people will grow tired of the amount of fluff coming at them from all directions. At that point, there will be a place for honest to goodness, advertising-free, agenda-free media that serve relevant information to the masses even if those masses are only a select few who believe in the simple but crucial, uninterrupted, non-skewed, and not tapered with flow of information!