Book examines media ethics from global perspective

By Stephen J. A. Ward

 One leading edge of media ethics research is the search for an ethics appropriate to today’s global journalism. A growing number of ethicists and scholars focus on how journalism ethics needs to be re-framed, now that news media is global in reach and impact. Do journalists with global impact acquire new responsibilities? A media ethics without borders does not yet exist. It is an idea, a movement, and a controversial proposal.  

    Media Ethics Beyond Borders , recently published by Heinemann Publishers in South Africa, approaches the issue from a variety of theoretical and cultural perspectives. The book’s 10 essays discuss, debate, and critique the very idea of a global media ethics. Media Ethics Beyond Borders is the result of a roundtable on global media ethics held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, in March 2007. Over three days, an international group of media scholars presented papers that became the chapters of this volume.

      While a global media ethics does not exist, the authors believe that it is vital to imagine ways in which it might be brought into being, and what it would look like. Urgent global issues and the power of global communications point to the need for a media ethics that is global in its principles and in its understanding of media.  However, the idea of global media ethics raises tough questions. Are there universal values in journalism? How would a global media ethics do justice to the cultural and economic differences around the world?

    The book has three sections. In Section One, the authors address the most theoretical questions. Clifford G. Christians opens the book by arguing that a global media ethics should be based on an “ethics of universal being.”  The overarching framework for a media ethics without borders should be a universal ethics of human dignity, truth, and non-violence. Lee Wilkins seeks to answer the question: How is work, particularly journalism, influenced by the moral growth of individuals?  Wilkins looks to what neuroscientists understand about how the human brain thinks about morality. On to this foundation, she places a feminist theory of care infused with an authentic sense of duty.  Stephen J. A. Ward asks whether ethical journalists violate their principles of objectivity and independence when they report as patriots, especially in time of conflict. Ward develops a theory of moderate, democratic patriotism that is compatible with ethical journalism within a nation. Ward then develops a theory of “global patriotism” for global journalists. Nick Couldry develops a framework for a media ethics from the point of view of all citizens. Using neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, Couldry argues that we need a global media ethics that no longer separates media producers from media consumers. 

     In Section Two, the contributors consider how theories that advance universal journalism values relate to critical and post-colonial perspectives. How can global principles be “local” or “glocal” – a hybrid of local and global? How can a global ethics deal with issues of power, colonialism, and the diversity of media cultures? Herman Wasserman argues that supposedly universal values for media such as the concept of “human dignity” have to be interpreted and applied within local contexts, but in relation to a global set of power relations within which media producers, audiences and participants are mutually interdependent. Shakuntala Rao argues for an “epistemic syncretism” where media practitioners can combine Western theories of media ethics with theories derived from local traditions and religious life. In his chapter, Pieter Fourie sounds a cautionary note against the postcolonial approaches of Wasserman and Rao.  Although post-colonial theories may accentuate the need for an African media perspective, he emphasises that such appeals can be misused, and appeal to indigenous knowledge should take account of the realities of cultural assimilation and globalisation.

      In Section Three, two authors ask about how media ethics operates in Zambia and Ethiopia, while a third author explains how the principles of Islam support global ethics. Fackson Banda draws on the different historical trajectories that have altered the texture of media ethics in Zambia – from colonialism, post-colonialism to globalisation. Banda illustrates the tensions that exist between global, often Euro-American, libertarian ethical values of journalism. He concludes that the main question is the degree of hybridisation of the criss-crossing experience.  Then, Ali Mohammed examines how the newspaper publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed raises the issue of freedom of expression in the context of globalization and cultural pluralism. His essay explains how a reading of the primary Islamic scriptural sources reflects Islam’s support for freedom of expression but also the responsibility it entails. Gebremedhin Simon discusses media ethics in Ethiopia and draws links between that country’s media ecology and codes of media ethics. 

      This book does not claim to be comprehensive. It could not possibly include all of the perspectives on global media ethics from every part of the world. Yet, this book does claim to be an exploration into the barely chartered terrain of the ethics of the future. It is an invitation to readers to join the growing debate on the prospects of a media ethics without borders.

Media Ethics Beyond Borders: A Global Perspective, eds. Stephen J. A. Ward and Herman Wasserman. Johannesburg, South Africa: Heinemann Publishers.    Published June 2008. Price: $30 Cdn (approximately) 180 pages; softbound.
Contact to order book:

Stephen J. A. Ward is associate professor of journalism ethics at the School of journalism at the university of British Columbia.

Herman Wasserman is a professor of media and cultural studies at Newcastle University in England.