Enhancing Your Ethical Base
Thus far in Living Ethics we have covered how consciousness and conscience work in tandem to shape values, foresee consequences and discern truth. Consciousness and conscience also inform each other to overcome challenges associated with falsehood, manipulation, temptation and bias. In this section we utilize consciousness and conscience more selectively to enhance our values. Through case studies by and interviews with journalists and practitioners, we will sharpen our awareness to prepare for unforeseen conflicts and assess past ones, exercising fairness. We also will encounter other fairness-related concepts such as corrections, apologies, discretion and confidentiality. Then we will identify power bases, calling on conscience to use them appropriately and, in some cases, compassionately. Lastly media practitioners will discuss value systems across platforms, perhaps inspiring you to create your own ethics code to include in your online portfolios.
The Fairness Process
Ethical journalists strive to achieve fairness and then assess whether they have, making adjustments to prepare for the next encounter. That makes fairness one of the most important values in any system. Embracing fairness, you live ethics. You eventually ensure ever-greater levels of ethical behavior because of the continual goal of self-examination and improvement. Fair-minded people know right from wrong. They commit to truth, especially to full disclosure, not only in what they disseminate but also about their own motivations and desires. They might be manipulated or tempted by others, but because they emphasize preparedness, they are less apt to be tricked or enticed the next time. Fair-minded people also promote inclusivity; they do not discriminate because racism is a lie.
However, to embrace fairness and use it to enhance values, you also must have courage. You have to accept truth as you find it, even if that truth goes against everything that you have hitherto believed. You have to acknowledge, openly and freely, when you have been manipulated, tempted or biased; pride or ambition cannot stand in the way of such disclosures. For these and other reasons, we have postponed our discussion about fairness until this point. Fairness seems simple but assumes that we can foresee consequences, accept responsibility and admit and adjust for our biases. Thus, before embracing fairness, media professionals must have good knowledge of influence, consequences, truth, courage, honor, appropriateness and other concepts covered in Living Ethics.
Defined, fairness is a continual process of improvement involving the evaluation of work and behavior to determine (a) whether the work is accurate or truthful, (b) whether the behavior is honest or appropriate, and (c) whether methods or values can be enhanced to meet those goals.
“The most difficult issue I deal with is fairness,” says Joe Mahr, projects reporter/editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before joining the Post-Dispatch, he spent five years at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, where he won statewide awards for coverage of politics, government and economics. While at The Blade he also shared in a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in the 2003 series on the longest-known string of atrocities by a battle unit in Vietnam. Mahr acknowledges that as an investigative reporter, he has to pursue “tough stories that invariably put people or institutions in a bad light. Somebody’s screwing up. Somebody got away with wrongdoing. My goal is ensuring the story is more than simply accurate. It’s that, and it’s fair.” To ensure fairness, Mahr puts his articles into proper context. In the course of an investigation into how a murder suspect reportedly evaded arrest, he learned “that the suspect didn’t really evade arrest so much as the authorities screwed up 30 years ago when they failed to properly enter the murder warrant into a national fugitive database.” The police on the force at the time of Mahr’s investigation appealed to his sense of compassion, asking him not to use that information because it would tarnish the memory of former officers, several who had passed away or retired. Mahr knew that the information about the fugitive database was relevant. However, in honoring full disclosure, he says, there were other relevant facts, too. “It was equally important for me to put this in the proper context. At the time this screw-up occurred, the city was in the midst of one of its worst murder waves ever, as well as undergoing tough financial times. There had been cut-backs in the detective bureau, and detectives felt as if they were racing from call to call.” While Mahr didn’t dwell on these aspects in his story, he did include this information to reflect the context. “It didn’t excuse the screw-up,” he says, “but it helped explain why it happened.” As a result, Mahr not only covered how a fugitive escaped justice, but did justice to the story by exercising fairness.
Justice is the byproduct of the fairness process. When performed impartially, the end result of fairness restores balance, makes things whole, sets things right. Many philosophers, not to mention media professionals, believe that life is unfair; truth, relative; and objectivity, impossible. But they still demand justice whose roots trace back to Aristotle who professed that justice was the preeminent objective for humankind because our cultures and communities are inherently social.[i] In other words, to safeguard our communal way of life we have to get along, especially in a nation whose work ethic pivots on social mobility. Ethicist Anita L. Allen states that fairness has a basic requirement: “In the United States we are forced to compete with other people for many of the good and necessary things in life, so the playing field of competition should be level.”[ii]
In media practice, we play on many fields across platforms. Our news must be impartial, balanced and fair, or we do injustice to those we cover—so much so, at times, that outlets are sued for libel in courts of law. Our bidding processes and requests for proposals—even our places of employment—must be unbiased and “on the level” so that competition can flourish along with merit as part of our work ethic. Media practitioners are held to higher standards of fairness than those in other professions because our words, images and sounds are transmitted via powerful technology to the public and influence both culture and community.
[i] Anita L. Allen, The New Ethics: A Guided Tour of the Twenty-First Century Moral Landscape, (New York: Hyperion, 2004), xxxii.
[ii] Allen, 39.