Philosophical Principles Governing Journalism Ethics

As editorial decision-makers, journalists are consistently required to apply ethical reasoning to make choices in everyday professional situations. It is in this fundamental sense that journalism is a moral enterprise: journalists are in the business of weighing the right and/or duty to publish against a range of counterbalancing considerations.

Biagi (2007, p. 325) identifies philosophical principles that “govern journalism ethics”: Aristotle’s golden mean, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s principle of utility, Rawls’ veil of ignorance and the Judeo-Christian view of persons as ends in themselves. Kant’s categorical imperative (Wood, 2005), regarded as the foundation of deontological ethics, is the basis for one of the philosophical approaches to journalism ethics. By Kant’s definition, the journalists’ autonomy in editorial decision-making entails not an amoral freedom to do as they please, but rather the absolute freedom to make morally correct decisions in accordance with universal law.

Mill’s (Mill, 1991/1859) maxim of choosing the greatest good for the society as a whole is a principle regarded as foundational to utilitarianism.

John Rawls’ (1971) “veil of ignorance” analogy projects an ideal judge in moral decision-making as one who adjudicates without knowing the identity of the other.

Aristotle’s (2001) “Golden Mean” presents a perspective that emphasises the virtue inherent in moderation and advocates moderate solutions where identifiable extreme positions are possible.

Christians et al. (2005) posit that a viable approach to the theory and practice of media ethics is found in the Judeo-Christian virtue-based approach to ethical decision-making, based on the philosophy of “agape”, the highest order of self-giving love in the New Testament. According to Craig and Ferré (2006), the agape approach advocates, as a moral base of conduct, not self-interest but an internal steadfast commitment to honouring the human dignity of another without calculating the benefit that will accrue in return.

This approach has been described as virtue-based ethics, as compared to the rules-based or ends-based approaches of other frameworks. According to Cunningham (1999), virtue-based ethics “situates the right choice as something issuing from a character-grounded vision of what ought to be done, a selection that is constituted by wisdom-enhanced judgment of a morally developed actor” (pp. 10-11).

It is important to note, however, that these notions of ethics do not line up with contemporary postmodern value systems.

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