How to research ethics in communication (Hint: with integrity)

Social and ethical issues in journalism and other communications, such as public relations, business communications and information science, are good research paper topics for your ethics term paper.

Rupert Murdoch Getting Schooled In Journalism Ethics. (Credit: Rob Tornoe)

Rupert Murdoch Getting Schooled In Journalism Ethics. (Credit: Rob Tornoe)

Here are some debates and issues of ethics in journalism you can discuss and a list of databases and resources for more research.

Audience versus journalists

Do the journalists tell audiences what is newsworthy or do audiences tell journalists what they want to know? According to veteran ABC News reporter Ted Koppel, unfortunately today’s news has been mostly the latter. In his opinion pieces for the New York Times, Koppel said that audience influence over American news programming threatens the fabric of American democracy.

“News firms no longer provide the most important and consequential stories to audiences,” said Joseph E. Uscinski in the book, The People’s News: Media, Politics, and the Demands of Capitalism, as he explained Koppel’s viewpoint. “Instead, outlets fill precious space with news designed to appease the audience’s demands. This leaves audiences without the information necessary to properly function in a democracy.” Rather than use their independent judgment as to what is important news, news producers “adjust news content in response to ratings, audience demographics, and public opinion polls.”

Banned books

Another good topic for ethics in communications is banned books. Who decides what books should be banned? Should any books be banned, or should anyone be allowed to read anything? What gets a book banned? The famous J.D. Salinger 1951 book Catcher in the Rye has been banned numerous times over the decades, yet nearly every high school student has had to read it—quite a paradox.

It seems a book can be banned for any reason, no matter how absurd. According to the American Library Association, the tale of Holden Caulfield’s rebellious adolescence has been banned in “Duval County, Fla. public school libraries (1992) because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled,” reported Daniel Jack Chasan in “Why J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ still provokes book bans,” posted in Crosscut March 19, 2010. The book was also “[c]hallenged as required reading in the Corona Norco, Calif. Unified School District (1993) because it is ‘centered around negative activity’ ” and “[r]emoved by a Dorchester District 2 school board member in Summerville, SC (2001) because it ‘is a filthy, filthy book.’ ”

The influence of images in news stories

The ethical considerations in photojournalism are vast. One issue is the use of images to influence news stories. Studies have shown that people think different ethically whether exposed to words or pictures. The left brain (spoken and written words) processes information logically and analytically, while the right brain (pictures) is more emotional and immediate. Therefore, in our fast-paced news cycles, journalists know that they can write fewer words and use more pictures and charts while in the process gain more of an emotional reaction.

But is this ethical? What if the images are of people who are victims of war or natural disaster, or of the journalist’s own political opinion, or are racist or religious in nature? Every day, journalists and editors must decide what images are appropriate for the story and not simply to exploit moral outrage. However, many times stark images actually do good.

“When Jacob Riis published his photographs of people living in filthy tenements, it helped lead to both efforts to clean up the slums and legislation to prevent unsanitary living conditions. Lewis Hines’ photographs of children toiling in sweatshops were followed by child labor legislation,” explained Lee Wilkins and Renita Coleman in the book, The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason about Ethics.

Resources for ethics in communications

Here are some online and library databases and other resources for information on social and ethics issues in communication.

  • CQ Researcher (http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher) – contains reports on politics, social issues, international, education, environment and U.S. economy.
  • Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society (http://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/products/journals/journals.htm?id=JICES) – examines the social and ethical issues related to the planning, development, implementation and use of new media and information and communication technologies.

For more information, check out Questia’s library on Social and Ethical Issues in Communication.

What are some other ethics concerns in journalism and communications?

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