Book extract: History of Media Ethics

Ethical issues have had to be confronted by those working in the mass media ever since the media came into being.
From ‘Media Ethics’, a book by PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA.


Truth, Fairness, and Objectivity 

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

9780195697957, Paperback , 352 Pages

Oxford University Press

March 2009

Rs. 245   



Mass media occupies a special position in any democratic society as it impacts, directly or indirectly, a large number of people. The book takes a look at the day-to-day ethical issues related to the functioning of media professionals and mass communication organizations in a democracy. It exemplifies the fine distinction between areas of ¿public interest¿ and those in the interest of the public. Key ethical issues such as truth, objectivity, sensitivity, privacy, social responsibility, media laws, and democratic principles are discussed to enlighten the reader who will face these issues in their professional life.


Extracted with permission of Oxford University Press.


Box 1.3


History of Media Ethics in the US and Europe


Ethical issues have had to be confronted by those working in the mass media ever since the media came into being. An illustrative (not exhaustive) list of notable examples of incidents (Rodman 2001) involving media ethics from the US—except the first one which is from the UK and the last one from Norway is provided here; some of these instances have been detailed in subsequent chapters in this book.


1719:  Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, considered by some to be the first novel in the English language, as a work of ¿fiction¿ whereas the book was publicized and sold as a work of ¿fact¿.


1735: John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly, was jailed for accusing Royal Governor William Cosby of stealing land at a time when the law of seditious libel made any criticism of the government and its agents illegal, irrespective of whether the allegations were true or not. His lawyer argued that truth was Zenger¿s defence and a jury held him not guilty of sedition.


1848: The invention of the telegraph in 1844 made possible the formation of the world¿s first news agency, the Associated Press of New York. Six newspapers printed out of New York, all of which had correspondents in Boston, agreed to cut costs and share one correspondent. The Associated Press (AP) grew to become a nationwide institution and then, an international giant that today remains one of the world¿s largest news agencies. On the ethical side, the fact that newspapers espousing different political ideologies had to share a correspondent ensured that the correspondent concerned would adhere to the journalistic ideals of objectivity and fairness and would adopt writing styles that separated fact from opinion.


1898: The phrase yellow journalism was coined at a time when newspapers began to be printed in colour and the comics section was put on pages that had yellow borders. During this period, the publications owned by two well-known American media magnates, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, were intense competitors. Many US historians hold Hearst and Pulitzer responsible for the war between America and Spain in Cuba as their publications exaggerated facts about so-called Spanish atrocities and urged the US government to declare war on Spain.


Two anecdotes about this period are significant:


An artist, Fredrick Remington, wanted to be relieved of his Cuban assignment because it seemed unlikely at one stage that the US would get involved in the war. Hearst is believed to have cabled him: ¿Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I¿ll furnish the war¿.  Hearst also told a reporter whose duties he had taken up after the reporter was wounded in a battle: ¿I¿m sorry you are hurt, but wasn¿t it a splendid fight? We must beat every paper in the world!¿


In 1941, Orson Welles scripted and directed a classic film, Citizen Kane, about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon, that most believed was a thinly disguised biography of Hearst. On its release, Hearst banned his newspapers from reviewing the film. The film traced the life and career of a man whose career in publishing was first motivated by ideals of public service but who eventually became a ruthless businessman who could go to any length—including organizing a murder—to be the first to report ¿news¿.


As for the Hungarian-American Pulitzer, he left a large amount of money with Columbia University in New York to institute a series of awards for excellence in print journalism and literature. The Pulitzer prizes, considered to be the most prestigious in the US, have over the years been awarded to prominent personalities that include Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Arthur Miller, Eugene O¿Neill, Edward Albee and John Updike.


1901: During the 100-day war when American forces destroyed the Spanish fleet of ships outside Santiago harbour in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines and occupied Puerto Rico, the US President was William McKinley (1843–1901) who died after a mentally unstable anarchist shot him. McKinley was President during a time of economic depression and after his death, The Brooklyn Eagle carried an editorial headlined ¿Yellow Journalism and Anarchy¿ that, in part, read: ¿The journalism of anarchy shares responsibility for the attack on President McKinley. It did not mean that he should be shot. It only wished to sell more papers by commenting (on him) and cartooning him as a tyrant reddening his hands in (the) blood of the poor and filling his pockets and those of others with dollars coined out of the sweat and tears and hunger of the helpless strikers, their wan wives and their starving children.¿


1906: US President Theodore Roosevelt first used the word ¿muckrakers¿ to describe journalists who, he felt, had ignored his government¿s achievements while highlighting instances of corruption. He stated in a public speech: ¿In John Bunyan¿s Pilgrim¿s Progress, you may recall the description of the Man with the Muckrake, the man who could look no way but downward, with a muckrake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.¿


1923: A group of journalists opposed to ¿tabloid¿ journalism that sensationalized facts formed the American Society of Newspaper Editors that adopted an ethical code simply called ¿canons of journalism¿ that the code emphasized responsibility, sincerity, truthfulness, accuracy, impartiality, fair play and decency while upholding the freedom and independence of the press.


1930: A motion picture code for rating movies was put in place by the US film industry to avoid government censorship. The code sought to limit depiction of sex, violence and activities considered disrespectful to the government. Eight years earlier, in 1922, a silent film actor, Fatty Arbuckle, had been accused of murdering a young woman after a drunken party. He was tried three times; the jury delivered hung verdicts twice and after the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted. This incident had conservative sections of the American society criticizing the film industry as a degenerate place.


1954: American physician Samuel H. Sheppard was convicted of killing his pregnant wife in Cleveland. The trial received extensive publicity prompting the US Supreme Court to call it a ¿carnival atmosphere¿. Some newspapers were criticized for labelling Sheppard as the only viable suspect and thus creating a bias against him. In 1966, a court exonerated Sheppard of the crime after he had served ten years in prison.


1958: A series of television quiz shows were found to have been rigged by the organizerswho provided answers in advance to favoured contestants. Federal laws were passed placing the onus of ensuring fairness on the television networks.


1964:  After the famous New York Times versus L.B. Sullivan case, it became difficult for public personalities to claim that they had been libelled. A group of religious ministers from Alabama had placed an advertisement in The New York Times  stating that the local police had unleashed an ¿unprecedented wave of terror¿ against civil rights activists. A police commissioner, Sullivan, sued the ministers and the newspaper saying he had been indirectly libelled though he had not been named. Though the court in Alabama ruled in his favour, Sullivan lost the case in the US Supreme Court where judges ruled that the media should have greater latitude in criticizing public figures as opposed to private persons. The judges said democracy is best served by robust debates about public issues and public personalities could not be separated from issues concerning themselves or the organizations they represented.


1964: While being repeatedly asked to define obscenity, US Supreme Court Judge Potter Stewart said in a moment of frustration: ¿I can¿t define it, but I know it when I see it.¿


1970: A member of the popular music band, The Beatles, George Harrison was let off lightly by a judge in a case of infringement of copyright. His 1970 hit song My Sweet Lord was found to be almost identical to a song released seven years earlier by a band called Chiffons entitled He¿s So Fine. The judge said Harrison had not meant to copy the song knowingly but that the melody had somehow got stuck in his brain without him realizing it!


1971: The New York Times and the Washington Post published a series of leaked documents called the ¿Pentagon Papers¿ that disclosed that the US government had not been honest about revealing facts relating to the conduct of the war in Vietnam.


1974: The same newspapers reported on the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.


1980: Janet Cooke¿s series of articles about a non-existent eight-year-old heroin addict called Jimmy in the Washington Post sparked off a frenzied 17-day search in America¿s capital city at the behest of the then mayor Marion Barry. Though the child was not traced, Cooke received a Pulitzer prize. After an internal enquiry, she confessed that she had fabricated the story. She later claimed that she had actually heard of such a boy but was unable to find him. She then created a story about him to ¿get her editors off her back¿. She resigned and the Post returned her prize.


1989: At least fifteen US airlines censored a sequence from the Oscar-winning film Rain Man for in-flight viewing. In the film, an autistic character played by Dustin Hoffman reels off statistics about aviation accidents.


1991:  A group of police officers were videotaped assaulting Rodney King, an African American, in Los Angeles. After the officers were acquitted by a local court, rioting broke out in the city. The same videotape was used as evidence to convict the officers by a federal court.


1992: NBC showed a truck made by General Motors exploding after a collision at low speed. It was later revealed that the truck had remote-controlled explosive devices attached to it. The company sued the channel and won a settlement. The channel¿s news head Michael Gartner had to resign.


1995: In what became known as the ¿trial of the century¿, American football player O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend even as the verdict became the most watched event on American television.


1996: Wal-Mart, the largest retail chain in the US and the world, refused to stock compact discs and cassettes of a music album by Sheryl Crow since in one song in the album, she sang the following words: ¿Watch out sister, watch out brother. Watch our children as they kill each other with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores¿. Crow refused to change the lyrics of her song for the retail company and reportedly had to bear with loss of sales.


1998: CNN and Time reported stories alleging that ¿sarin¿ nerve gas had been used by US forces, in Laos, in a secret operation known as Tailwind, and that American defectors were intentionally killed. After these stories provoked strong denials, an internal investigation, overseen by an attorney, was launched. The investigation found that the allegations about the use of nerve gas and the killing of defectors were not supported by evidence and the television channel and the magazine apologized.


1998: The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a front-page apology to Chiquita Brands International, Inc. saying its series of stories questioning the company¿s business practices were untrue and based on stolen voice mail. The newspaper sacked the lead reporter of the story and agreed to pay more than $10 million to settle any claims against it by the company, even before a lawsuit had been filed against the publication.


1998: The Boston Globe writer Patricia Smith, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, had to resign her job after admitting that she had used fake quotations in four of her columns. Stephen Glass, associate editor of The New Republic, was also fired after he confessed that he had ¿embellished¿ an article about computer hackers. The magazine later alleged that he had concocted material in 27 out of 41 articles written and published over a period of three years.


1999: Warner Brothers¿ Television, owners of the Jenny Jones Show, was successfully sued by the family of Scott Amedure who was shot dead shortly after he appeared on a recording of the programme that was never broadcast. During the recording, Amedure (who was homosexual) revealed that he had a crush on another participant in the show, Jonathan Schmitz. The anchor, Jenny Jones, had apparently coaxed Amedure to graphically reveal his fantasies about Schmitz. Schmitz, who is not homosexual, seemed to have laughed off the attention given to him during the recording of the show. Three days later, Schmitz went to Amedure¿s house and killed him.


2003: The New York Times journalist Jayson Blair resigned after he was confronted with evidence that he had fabricated quotes and facts in at least 36 published articles, among which was an interview with the parents of Jessica Lynch, who had been a prisoner of war in Iraq. The newspapers executive editor resigned after he was considered partially culpable for Blair¿s indiscretions. In response to the scandal, The New York Times created the position of a public editor—akin to an ombudsman—whose job is to critique the newspaper¿s own journalists.


2004: Jack Kelley was considered to be a star reporter of USA Today until it was discovered that he had fabricated articles or parts of articles that had been published. It was found that Kelley had been favoured by the newspapers top two editors who later resigned.


2004: The Boston Globe published photographs allegedly showing American soldiers abusing and raping women in Iraq that were found to be fake.


2004: Midway through the live broadcast of a major sporting event on CBS, singer Janet Jackson¿s breast was exposed by fellow performer Justin Timberlake. Jackson apologized calling it an accident and Timberlake also issued an apology describing the incident as a ¿wardrobe malfunction¿. The Federal Communications Commission imposed a fine of $550,000 on CBS.


2005: Associated Press reported a story with a photograph of an American soldier who was supposed to have been held hostage in Iraq and whose captors were threatening to kill him unless Iraqi prisoners were released. Within hours, it was found that the agency had been duped into releasing false information and that the photograph of the soldier had been taken during a mock exercise.


2006: Norwegian journalist Bjoern Benkow admitted that he had published fabricated interviews of a number of prominent personalities including Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Schumacher. Benkow claimed that he had met these personalities at times and places that were different from what he had written. He pleaded that he had concocted the interviews ¿out of desperation, to pay the rent, the power, food and to survive¿. He added: ¿I have no excuses, just explanations.¿

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