This section provides an overview of ethics
in general, and journalism ethics. It identifies the major approaches
to ethics and models of ethical reasoning, before explaining the nature
of journalism ethics. The aim is to orient readers who are not familiar
with the study of ethics.
CN8 reports on the Petco gas explosion. Photo
by Jackie Fritsche
Nature of ethics
The word “ethics” is connected intrinsically with questions
of correct conduct within society. Etymologically, “ethics”
comes from the Greek “ethos” meaning “character”
which indicates a concern for virtuous people, reliable character
and proper conduct. “Morality” is derives from “mores”
or custom -- the rules of conduct of a group or society. An initial
definition of ethics, then, is the analysis, evaluation, and promotion
of correct conduct and/or good character, according to the best available
Ethics asks what we should do in some circumstance, or what we should
do as participants in some form of activity or profession. Ethics
is not limited to the acts of a single person. Ethics is also interested
in the correct practices of governments, corporations, professionals
and many other groups. To these questions, ethics seeks a reasoned,
principled, position. An appeal to existing practice or the command
of a powerful leader is not sufficient. To answer such questions in
a consistent, reasoned manner may take us far a-field. Some ethical
questions will require reflection on our basic values and the purpose
of human society.
Ethics is best conceived of as something we “do,” a form
of on-going inquiry into practical problems. Ethics is the difficult
practical task of applying norms and standards to ever new and changing
circumstances. Ethical questions arise most typically in cases where
there is genuine puzzlement about what should be done in various types
of situations. There is usually some practical importance or urgency
to such questions. Is it ethical for journalists to reveal their sources
to the courts, despite their promises of confidentiality? Is it ethical
of journalists to invade the privacy of politicians to investigate
allegations of mis-behaviour? One inquires ethically because one is
puzzled about how existing principles might apply in a concrete situation.
Ethical inquiry exists because tensions inevitably arise over what
constitutes correct conduct or fair practice wherever humans live
and work together. Disagreements arise not only over specific practices,
but also over the interpretation of principles.
Ethics is sometimes identified with an inflexible set of rules and
self-righteous moralizing. Rules say an action is either right or
wrong. This over-simplifies ethics. Ethical thinking requires the
guidance of principles but it should not be shackled to them. Instead,
we should evaluate principles according to whether they are useful
in dealing with ethical concerns. Principles, and their interpretations*
change over time. No principle can anticipate all possible situations,
and principles may conflict. Ethics should focus on how people interpret,
apply, balance and modify their principles in light of new facts,
new technology, new social attitudes and changing economic and political
Ethics is not static. Ethics consists of dynamic frameworks of principles
and values. Our ethical values reflect our deepest convictions and
attachments. They define who we are, and give us an ethical “identity.”
Ethics is the process of inventing new and better ethical responses
to problems and conflicts. This process is driven not only by social
change but also by our “ethical imagination” which continually
pushes on existing boundaries. For example, relatively recent ‘imaginative’
proposals include the advocacy of same-sex marriage and the idea that
animals have “rights.”
Range of ethics Ethical inquiry covers a wide range of possible
subjects, such as:
• Personal ethics: e.g. questions about one's basic values
and plan of life
• Professional ethics: principles and practices of major
• Social and political ethics: e.g., issues of social
justice, political rights
• Ethics of sexual and gender relations
• Research ethics in academia and the private sector
• Environmental ethics, including the ethical treatment
• Global ethics: ethics of international affairs, human
• Communication ethics, including media, public relations
and applied ethics
Ethical inquiry can occur on many levels of thought, according to
one’s focus and interest. We can distinguish between two main
types of ethical inquiry:
Theoretical ethics: The study of the main concepts
and methods of ethics. Major questions at this level include the nature
of ethical language, the justification of ethical judgments and the
nature of ethical reasoning. Ethical philosophy, for example, is the
systematic study of ethical experience and the justification of moral
notions, beginning with those that historically and by current estimation
are the most important.
Applied ethics: The application and evaluation of
the principles and norms that guide practice in particular domains.
The focus is on issues and problems specific to the field in question,
through a combination of theory and practice. Major questions at this
level include how certain principles apply to various practical problems,
the ranking of principles, the standards of “best practice”
and ethical decision-making in the field. The “theoretical-applied”
distinction is not absolute. It is a matter of emphasis and interest.
As practical, reasoned inquiry, ethics in any domain will include
both practical and theoretical considerations.
Professional ethics is a major division of applied ethics.
It is the application and evaluation of norms and practice in the
various professions, such as medicine, journalism and law. Since the
mid-1900s, many institutes, centres and journals have been established
to study and enhance nursing ethics, business ethics, biomedical ethics,
media ethics, the ethics of government and corporate governance and
By focusing on a major
aspect: One way to approach
ethics is to focus on one of four recurring aspects of ethical situations:
rights, goods, virtues and our communal relations with others. Ethical
inquiry into correct conduct involves (1) questions about whether
an action honours or violates anyone’s rights or duties, (2)
questions about the “goods” that should be pursued, often
thought of as the harmful or beneficial consequences of action, (3)
the impact of action on the “virtue” of the actors --
their character and integrity, and (4) the impact of action on our
communal and “caring” relations with others.
Each of the
four aspects provides an approach to ethics:
or “goods-based” ethics: Ethics is primarily about the
aims or telos of actions -- the “goods” to be pursued,
including the impact of actions on individuals or groups. Ethics
systems in this tradition include “consequential” theories
that attempt to maximize valuable outcomes or “goods”
and minimize harms. One form of consequentialism is utilitarianism,
where valuable outcomes are defined in terms of utility.
or “de-ontological” ethics: Ethics is primarily about
the rights and duties of agents, which take precedent over individual
feelings or inclinations, the wishes of the majority, or utilitarian
calculations about what would make most people happy. Rights trump
the pursuit of goods. There are fundamental principles and duties
that restrain self-interest. Ethical systems in this tradition include
the philosophy of Kant and John Rawls.
3. Virtue ethics:
Ethics is primarily about developing a virtuous person and citizen.
Ethics is not primarily about formulating an unchanging set of principles.
It is about developing ethical character and the practical wisdom
to choose the right thing to do in complex situations. Here, ethical
education and development plays a central role. Ethical thought
in this tradition derives from the virtue ethics of Plato and Aristotle,
with its stress on achieving the good life, through virtuous dispositions.
Often, such thinking is “perfectionist” by stressing
that ethics should be guided by a notion of human perfection or
the ideal society.
4. Ethics of
care and community: Ethical deliberation should prioritize the fostering
of responsible, caring relationships among people – relationships
that honour their dignity, humanity and “connectedness.”
This approach is embodied in a “communitarian ethics”
that views values as embedded in community and shared practices.
According to this approach, too much of Western ethics has emphasized
the rights of atomized individuals while downplaying their duties.
A primary ethical imperative, then, is to build communities that
enhance compassionate and fulfilling relationships among its members.
In journalism, this “ethics of care” is expressed in
several ways, including the principle to “minimize”
unnecessary harm to vulnerable subjects of news stories. Advocates
of an ethics of care tend to prefer the “social responsibility
theory” of the press over the liberal theory of the press.
See theories of the press below.
Please note : This division
is too simplistic. A full theory of ethics would have to make
room for all four aspects. Also, some ethical systems cut across
the categories. For example, Rawls’s theory of justice
stresses the priority of rights, yet he also shows how the pursuit
of goods is enhanced by a just social structure. Aristotle develops
an ethics of virtue, which is also a teleological theory about
how to achieve the supreme good of happiness. The value of this
rough categorization is that it draws attention to four aspects
of ethical thinking, and that some philosophers emphasize one
aspect more than others.
By focusing on the “source” of ethical
authority: Even if we agree on
the approach and the basic rules, we could disagree on their justification:
Authoritative, external, voices: Ethical rules valid if they
are the rules of a deity, inspired leader, a divine world order,
tradition or ancient, holy, book. This tradition includes not only
religions but also philosophical systems, such as the appeal to
divine law by Thomas Aquinas and the appeal to a universal “natural
law” by the Stoics and John Locke.
Naturalism: Ethical judgments are based on natural feelings,
conscience or reason within all humans -- not on supernatural authority.
Universal sentiments may include benevolence and sympathy, pleasure
or happiness. Universal principles may be recognized by the faculty
of reason. Naturalism includes the philosophical traditions of empiricism
and rationalism, from Aristotle and John Locke to David Hume, Adam
Smith and Kant.
Social agreement, or contract: The rational basis of ethical
and political rules (and arrangements) is a fair agreement among
all interested parties. Historically, this agreement has been interpreted
as an implicit, or explicit, social contract, or a hypothetical
site for the Centre
for Applied Ethics
at the University
of British Columbia provides a wide selection of links to models
of ethical reasoning -- how to make ethical decisions in general,
and in specific professions. The web site also provides links to
a bibliography of books and articles on ethical reasoning.