Enhancing Your Ethical Base
Thus far in Living Media Ethics we have covered how consciousness and conscience work in tandem to shape values, foresee consequences and discern truth. Consciousness and conscience also inform each other to overcome challenges associated with falsehood, manipulation, temptation and bias. In this section, we utilize consciousness and conscience more selectively to enhance our values. Through case studies by and interviews with journalists and practitioners, we will deepen our intuition and sharpen our awareness to prepare for unforeseen conflicts, exercising fairness. We also will explore other fairness-related tenets such as corrections, apologies and discretion and inspirational tenets such as forgiveness, compassion and empathy. We also will identify power bases leading to empowerment, overcoming challenge in everyday matters and even in actionable ones such as sexual harassment. Lastly media practitioners will discuss value systems across platforms, motivating you to create your own ethics code to include in your digital clipbooks or portfolios.
FAIRNESS: Level the Playing Fields
Abstract: The chapter discusses the basics of fairness, one of the most treasured components of any value system. Fairness requires continuous assessment of behavior and choices to ascertain if they were accurate, truthful and appropriate and whether they could have been improved upon to meet those desired goals. In analyzing that, fair-minded people pay special attention to viewpoint of all who might be affected by behaviors and choices. To make that point, case studies are provided from journalists and practitioners. Methods also are provided to help you achieve ever-higher levels of fairness. Practical applications follow as they pertain to corrections, apologies, fact-checking and discretion—an ethical value associated with fairness—that enhances credibility and professionalism. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Clarence Page provides a short essay on a decision to retract one of his columns after he realized that it may have been unfair. That is a powerful example of commitment to fairness, enhancing credibility and reputation. Ending personal and communal journal exercises put these concepts to the test as readers recall times they were treated unfairly or may have treated others unfairly … and what they derived from the experience.
Fairness Means Continuous Improvement
Ethical journalists strive to achieve fairness and then assess whether they have, making adjustments to prepare for the next encounter. That makes fairness one of the most important values in any system. Embracing fairness, you live ethics. You eventually ensure ever-greater levels of ethical behavior because of the continual goal of self-examination and improvement. Fair-minded people know right from wrong. They commit to truth, especially to full disclosure, not only in what they disseminate but also about their own motivations and desires. They might be manipulated or tempted by others, but because they emphasize preparedness, they are less apt to be tricked or enticed the next time. Fair-minded people also promote inclusivity; they do not discriminate because racism is a lie. Moreover, they seek justice and a level playing field for themselves and others in society.
However, to embrace fairness and use it to enhance values, you also must have courage. You have to accept truth as you find it, even if that truth goes against everything that you have hitherto believed. You have to acknowledge, openly and freely, when you have been manipulated, tempted or biased; pride or ambition cannot stand in the way of such disclosures. For these and other reasons, we have postponed our discussion about fairness until this point. Fairness seems simple but assumes that we can foresee consequences, accept responsibility and admit and adjust for our biases. That requires commitment. Thus, before embracing fairness, media professionals must have good knowledge of influence, responsibility, truth, integrity, inclusivity and other concepts covered in previous chapters of Living Media Ethics.
Defined, fairness is a continual process of improvement involving the evaluation of work and behavior to determine (a) whether the work is accurate or truthful, (b) whether the behavior is honest or appropriate, and (c) whether methods or values can be enhanced to meet those goals.
Justice is the byproduct of the fairness process. When performed impartially, the end result of fairness restores balance, makes things whole, sets things right. Many philosophers, not to mention media professionals, believe that life is unfair; truth, relative; and objectivity, impossible. But they still embrace justice whose roots trace back to Aristotle who professed that justice was the preeminent objective for humankind because our cultures and communities are inherently social.[i] In other words, to safeguard our communal way of life we have to get along, especially in a nation whose work ethic pivots on social mobility. Ethicist Anita L. Allen states that fairness has a basic requirement: “In the United States we are forced to compete with other people for many of the good and necessary things in life, so the playing field of competition should be level.”[ii]
News must be impartial, balanced and fair, or journalists do injustice to those they cover—so much so, at times, that outlets are sued for libel. Advertising and public relations also must take pains to be fair, especially when dealing with competitors or competitive bidding. Trade libel typically involves unfair, disparaging content leveled against a competitor; trade slander involves the spoken word, perhaps in an online video or broadcast. Advertisers commit libel or slander when they create unfair content that disparages competitors. Moreover, as communication agencies know, bidding processes and requests for proposals must be unbiased and “on the level” so that competition can flourish along with merit as part of our work ethic. According to the U.S. Justice Department:
American consumers have the right to expect the benefits of free and open competition—the best goods and services at the lowest prices. … The competitive [bidding] process only works, however, when competitors set prices honestly and independently. When competitors collude, prices are inflated and the customer is cheated. Price fixing, bid rigging, and other forms of collusion are illegal and are subject to criminal prosecution by the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice.[iii]
As you can see, the courts and Justice Departments hold media practitioners to higher standards of fairness than those in other professions because our words, images and sounds are transmitted via powerful technology to the public and influence culture and society.
[i] Anita L. Allen, The New Ethics: A Guided Tour of the Twenty-First Century Moral Landscape, (New York: Hyperion, 2004), xxxii.
[ii] Ibid, 39.
[iii] See “Price Fixing, Bid Rigging and Market Allocation Schemes,” U.S. Department of Justice, June 25, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/atr/price-fixing-bid-rigging-and-market-allocation-schemes