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The Media and Its Responsibilities

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May 12, 2014

The Media and its Responsibilities
The media should follow certain ethical standards for the information they present to the public. Most people get their information from watching the news, the internet, listening to the radio and other forms of media. The reporters and journalists providing the information through media outlets have a responsibility to provide neutral and honest information to the general population. The media must remain accountable for producing information that can be verified with records. They must also be liable for the consequences of reporting their stories. If the story that is being reported is not done appropriately it could lead to negative consequences. Media outlets need to follow sets of ethical guidelines to ensure that they are providing accurate and valuable stories. The media needs to provide information that is ethically sound so that people are able to receive the news in a non-biased, factual way. This includes opinions on political stances, as well as reports on current events in our communities. If the media reports a story in a way that could sway the viewer, or misrepresent the facts, it could affect how the public reacts to this event. Misrepresenting the facts in a story can lead to pretty severe problems for the people. The people could be angered or panicked from the news they hear, or it could lead to false reports about an innocent person among many other potential negative impacts. A solid way to analyze the media’s responsibility to provide reliable and quality information is to use the ethical theories or perspectives. These theories and perspectives can give us valid insights to the issue so that we can make a reasonable non biased decision on whether or not they are being ethical. A few examples of theories and perspectives that can be used for the issue of media responsibility are the Utilitarianism theory, the Deontology theory and the Emotivism perspective. To analyze the media’s responsibility we will use the examples of national tragedies and catastrophes and how the media reports them. National news gets shown all over our country and even in other countries as well. These stories tend to invoke strong emotions in the people watching or reading about it at home. They make people feel angry, sad, confused and scared. Media outlets can be a great help during a national crisis’s like chemical disasters or natural disasters. The media can help to warn people as well provide information on safety procedures and shelter locations. Some media representatives feel that is their social and ethical responsibility to help the people in these situations.
In the article Social Responsibility in the Media, a government experiment on having the media help with planning for disaster policies and prevention showed that journalists felt a professional responsibility to actively help with the emergency situations beyond just reporting what was happening. The experiment revealed that these journalists wanted to help by joining the emergency planners to improve how the crisis was managed. (Middleton, 2011) Helping to plan for these types of crisis could help the journalist remember to be mindful of the way they present their stories so that they remain ethical. If reported incorrectly, the strong reactions of the public can be misplaced or exaggerated. It is important to find a good ethical balance to the way they are told to ensure safety and calmness from those at home. Utilitarianism, which looks to find the best solution for the most people, can be applied to the media reporting of national tragedies. By using this particular theory we can ensure that the majority of the people are getting the news reports that will be most beneficial. The media would need to present the information in a way that informs the public about the current events, while also maintaining calmness from their audience. If the media were to show too much information or gruesome images it could induce panic from the viewers. This theory can help find that balance between what the people need to hear and what could cause more harm than good to report.
For example, if a public building blows up from an unconfirmed terrorist attack, viewers may start to panic that we are under attack before we have any proof that we are. If it turns out later that the explosion was just an accident with the gas lines then the media may have caused more panic than was necessary for the situation. The best thing for the majority of people in this situation would be to only report what has been confirmed to prevent people from panicking over a situation that could be a lot less severe. In 1973 Swedish radio broadcast a program about the nuclear power station at Barseback. The program included dramatic fiction about a radioactive release from a power station, which was still under construction. The story was set nine years in the future. Over the next 24 hours all major Swedish media reported on the program, which led to widespread panic. The story spread around the world by Reuters news agency. All those reports were based on an unconfirmed account by one regional reporter in Malmo. (Scanlon, 2009)
The media has a responsibility to hold off on reporting something that can cause mass panic until it has been confirmed true for the good of the people. With this story, all the panic and chaos would have been avoided if the media had taken the small amount of time to confirm the story. Ethically speaking, the media jumped the gun on reporting a story and caused more harm than good. Fictional or satire based news can often be misleading to some of the public. One famous story that comes to mind is the 1938 CBS radio network broadcasting of The War of the Worlds. As a Halloween special, the network broadcast an adapted story based on H.G. Wells' novel about an alien invasion set in New Jersey. They did such a great job with the program that around one million of the six million people listening to the show thought that it was real. (Walker, 2013) The radio network may not have intended to cause hysteria about an alien invasion when they aired their program, but the fact is that a lot of people did not understand the nature of the show. The ethical thing for the network to do would have been to ensure that it was clear that it was a fictional segment. This would make sure that most of the people listening would not panic.
A popular satire news site, The Onion, often has people that believe that the stories they produce are real. They are meant to be amusing articles that are loosely based on some truth or even complete fiction. If a person is unaware that these are the types of stories that they produce, they may take it as truth. These fictional reports need to be clearly labeled as such to keep from causing harm by inducing panic or even anger. Ethically, it is best for our society if people know that these reports are fictional.
Safety is another concern with showing too much on live television in the case of a current shooting. Networks would not want to be giving the gunman tactical police information by airing footage of the police approach. An article written about the media and the Columbine High School shooting states: “stations were careful not to reveal tactical police positions when shooting with helicopters and long lenses”. (Trigoboff, 2000, paragraph 17) This helped protect the students and teachers still inside by not giving away where the police were coming from. If the gunman was aware of where the police were coming from it would prevent them from taking him by surprise. The gunman could also use the coverage to find where people are hiding. This would put a lot of people in more danger than they already are. With the current available technology it is not unreasonable to think that the shooter would have access to the media.
The media has a responsibility to protect the people who are still in danger while also providing as much information as they can to everyone else. When we use Utilitarianism theory to analyze a situation such as a shooting, you need to look at how it will affect both the people watching and the people inside the shooting. The people watching at home will want as much information as possible, but the people inside the shooting need to be protected to the best ability. The greater benefit in this case would be to hold back some of the information to protect those still in danger until the gunman has been stopped. At that point the media could show the rest of the footage without endangering anyone. Deontology, which looks more for the reasons why an act was done rather than the consequences of the act, can be applied to the media as well. In the case of a mass shooting, reporters will try and get as much information out as fast as possible. By doing this they could potentially cause harm by giving false information. The Sandy Hook school shooting originally reported that the shooter was Ryan Lanza, which turned out to be false. The real shooter was in fact Adam Lanza. This kind of false reporting can cause harm, especially in Ryan Lanza’s case. (International Business Times, 2012) Ryan Lanza’s name is now tied to the shooting, even though he was not the gunman. Despite the correction of the identity of the shooter, Ryan Lanza’s name was spoken around the country. The damage to his name and reputation had already been done. He will now be remembered for something that he was not actually involved in.
Using Deontology to analyze why they gave out unconfirmed information, you can see that they were trying to keep providing the latest information as it came in. The speed in which the media can receive and tell information has become almost instantaneous. To keep up with coverage as important as a shooting, the media often does not get to verify information first. Sometimes they have to put out what they are being told without having the opportunity to confirm that information. By applying Deontology to this situation you can see that the media was only trying to provide the most current information that they had, and that they did not intend to cause harm in their reports. Therefore, even though they did cause harm, they were not acting in a way that is deemed unethical.
Another example of how Deontology applies to the media is accidentally showing material that they otherwise would not. News channels report many stories live as they are happening. They run a small delay to ensure that they can cut out any information that is not suitable for the broadcast. In rare cases, the footage is not cut in time to stop it from airing. This can be from someone forgetting to put on the delay or simply not stopping the footage fast enough. The network’s intention is to keep these things off of the air, but for whatever reason they do not always catch it. This is usually a circumstance of human error. In one case Fox News was showing live footage of a car chase. The chase ended with the suspect, JoDon Romero, exiting the car and shooting himself in the head. His children, who saw the footage, were left with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Goldman, 2013) Fox News has apologized profusely for the error, and claims that the intention was never to let that air. Some people were appalled by this incident, but Deontology looks only at the intentions behind the incident. The network’s intentions were not unethical in this situation despite the consequences that occurred from it airing.
Emotivism, which is based more on how an individual views the act, can be applied to how the people view the media’s presentation of a story. With the above story regarding the suicide of JoDon Romero, one person may view it as unethical because of how is makes them feel. Another person may feel like it was just human error and see no ethical problems with it. Emotivism relies less on facts and more on whether a person feels like the act is right or wrong.
If the media presents a story quickly without verifying facts and ends up reporting false information, such as with Ryan Lanza, some people would find this to be unethical. Other’s would see the media as just doing their job, and would not see anything wrong with how the media handled the situation. Emotivism is really just a matter of perspective for the individual, since it is based on individual perspectives and feelings.
The coverage of Nelson Mandela’s hospitalization prior to his death can be evaluated with Emotivism as well. The coverage was seen as unethical by many people. They felt that the coverage of his hospital stay left Mandela’s privacy and dignity at stake. Other’s felt that he suffered no harm by the reports and that the people had a right to know what was happening. This situation can be viewed as either right or wrong depending on a person’s personal opinion.
One thing we can see from using the examples above is that sometimes a situation can be deemed ethical by one theory but unethical by another. This can make it tricky to determine whether something is right or wrong. It is important to weigh the different theories and perspectives to know which one truly applies to the scenario at hand. When the media outlets do this in the way that they should be done it can keep them honest and reliable.
Using these theories and perspectives helps to determine if the media is acting in a way that is responsible and ethical. All the theories and perspectives have their own way of analyzing the situation to provide a unique point of view. Utilitarianism tries to find a solution that would be good for the greatest number of people involved. Deontology uses motives and intentions to determine whether or not something is ethical, and Emotivism looks at how something makes an individual feel to know if it is right or wrong. They all have something to offer in making ethical decisions. The media should use these ideas and perspectives to help make a guideline for how they should handle reporting the news. When it comes to reporting a story the facts can become hard to present in an ethical way. These theories can help make staying ethical in reporting easier.
The media should be held accountable and liable for reporting accurate information in a way that does not bring harm to those involved. Since the media provides the news to almost everyone, they need to remain ethical. They have a responsibility to provide the people with information in a way that meets core ethical standards. They need to remain neutral and honest, and give reports that have been properly verified. Applying these theories and perspectives to a specific circumstance can help determine if the media is acting in a way that is good. If the people hold the media accountable for their ethical decisions then they will try to uphold the standards the public demands.

References

1. Goldman, R. (2013, June 17). Fox News Sued for Broadcasting Suicide on Live TV. World News 2. International Business, T. (2012, December 16). Connecticut School Shooting: Misidentified, Ryan Lanzas React On Facebook And Twitter. International Business Times 3. Middleton, M. (2011). Social Responsibility in the Media. Global Media Journal: Indian Edition, 1-13 4. Scanlon, J. (2009). Research about the mass media and disaster: Never (well hardly ever) the twain shall meet. Disciplines, Disasters and Emergency Management Textbook 5. Trigoboff, D. (2000). Lessons of Columbine. (cover story). Broadcasting & Cable, 130(14), 26 6. Walker, J. (2013). America the paranoid: from the man who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson to The War of the Worlds, a brief history of political paranoia. Reason, (5). 52

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