(Bachelor of Media and Communication)
Ethics: what are the pressing ethical issues for practitioners in your area of specialisation? Do any ethical issues arise from questions around enterprise, working conditions, innovation and creativity?
In a rapidly changing media landscape, what role do ethics play in the analysis of contemporary media theory? This essay argues not only that media ethics ought to be at the core of such analysis but with the proliferation of the Internet accelerating a global collective consciousness, the task of finding a balanced approach to media ethics has never before been so complex. Furthermore, this essay argues that debate around media ethics are important not just within the walls of higher education faculties as some kind of cognitive exercise with little relevance to the real world; were the Columbine killings inspired at least in part by the proliferation of first-person shooter games and if so, where does personal responsibility end and media responsibility begin?
Let us begin by shooting fish in a barrel, so to speak, by dispelling a common myth about what it is the media actually is. The media is not merely a mirror that serves to reflect society back upon itself. In their analysis of the differing ways race and femininity are represented the music video genre, Railton and Watson (2011) argue that the depiction of the female figure in music videos supply a “formative, not merely expressive place in the constitution of social subjectivities”. The implication that music videos shape racial and gender expectations rather than just representing them, can be applied to media more broadly in terms of both subject matter and the media platform itself. The society-shaping effects of media are usually far more profound and far-reaching than what the media was actually created for (a method of capturing an audience by entertaining them and then selling their attention onto advertises). Over the past few decades the writer’s room of any popular North American sitcom (Friends, South Park, Scrubs) is a place with huge influence on shaping the public psyche. Importantly, the social responsibility of such power is almost always resigned to the backseat; humour is the currency of sitcom writers, and attention- grabbing tactics the currency of advertises. Much of the media’s role in shaping society is then but an accident, a by-product of the more important short-term goal of making money.
Should media producers be responsible for the effects of their content on society? This question is complex for a number of reasons. Firstly, it implies that the specific effects of one piece of media content can be measured objectively. Secondly, before we can cast judgement on whether something is socially responsible, we need to determine what the phenomenon of ethics actually is. In his publication “Radical Media Ethics: A Global Approach” Stephen Ward (2015) argues that “The essence of ethics is not to preserve what exists but to improve what exists. The essence of ethics is not following norms under social pressure and the force of tradition. Ethics is not about making descriptive claims about moral facts existing in the world. It is about articulating proposals for action and reform. It is about realising a better world out of the promise and potential inherent in today’s concrete situations. As a form of activism, ethics can never be static and conventional”. Using Ward’s definition of what ethics implies that merely declaring moral facts is insufficient. This is an important distinction as it implies that to merely reflect society accurately is not enough to be deemed ‘ethically responsible’ as a media producer –engaging in ethical representation is to challenge the status quo and improve current social norms, not merely confirm them.
Let us now look at the role globalisation plays in media ethics. The proliferation of the Internet has quickly made parochial views of media ethics seem quaint and out-dated. As media producers become more conscious of appealing to overseas audiences as well as those domestically, this has led to a keener eye for the social happenings abroad. Australian media content makers for example, have become increasingly aware of using a vernacular that will be understood by English speakers overseas, especially those in North America. The 1997 film The Castle, for example, was re-dubbed in certain scenes to replace the Australian slang with expressions more familiar with American audiences. While on the surface it might seem laughable to talk about the ‘ethical’ implications of doing so, media ethics does still come into play when reflecting on making content for overseas audiences. There has been great unease in much of Asia about the capital control of the of Hollywood movie making enterprise. While on the surface the importation of Hollywood films into South-East Asia might be passed off as proliferation of entertainment, there those who believe that a flood of foreign DVDs is acting as a Trojan Horse; a form of 21st century imperialism to indoctrinate developing countries with the values of the dominant West. With this is mind it is clearly not enough to consider media ethics in terms of one’s own immediate environment. In the words of Rao Shakuntala and Herman Wasserman (2015), “The greatest task of moral theory today is to transform itself into a global ethics that challenges dominant forms of parochial ethics, from ethno- centricity to nationalism and political realism. We should be radical in the ways of moral invention, envisaging a global ethics and a global media ethics for our interconnected world.”
So far we have touched on the way media representation occupies a “formative and not merely expressive place” in the proliferation of gender roles and race identities. It is worth mentioning the common argument that the role of entertainment media can also have more extreme and sinister effect on its subjects. In the words of Charles Ess (2014), “Whether fairly or not, the Columbine killings in 1999 were linked with the killers’ affection for violent video games.” While this might seem to be cause for censorship, let us keep in mind that these links are speculative. As passionate as we might be about wanting to curb the frequency of gun violence, critical thinking should not be sacrificed in the name of creating a better social good. In other words, such controversies cannot be adequately handled without a thorough and open discussion about contemporary media ethics.
With media ethics touches on a vast range of complex, fluid and controversial phenomena. While media itself, especially entertainment media, is often thought of in terms of leisurely consumption, the influence of the media to shape society for better or worse by confirming, challenging, and critiquing contemporary society is anything by trivial. With this power often a by-product of more pragmatic considerations about targeting audiences and offering a return to investors, the attention given to ethical considerations by media practitioners is all too often inadequate. And with the essence of ethics itself being something of consistently challenging the status quo in pursuit of a better, fairer world, the lazy approach of merely confirming current society does not qualify as being ‘ethical’ by definition. Additionally, with technology breaking down geographical distances, it is now impossible to have any meaningful discussion about media ethics without being part of a larger framework incorporating globalisation and multi-culturalism.