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This week, I am in the United States speaking at various conferences about the relationship between media, religion and culture — in particular, the way mass communication affects, for the good or the bad, our personal and communal hierarchy of values. In preparation for this trip, I have poured over every scientific study and academic analysis I have been able to get my hands on regarding how media — movies, print, radio, television and Internet — act as a catalyst for societal change.

The more I research, the more my attention moves away from my original goal of quantifying the power of the media and toward evaluating the ethical criteria the media uses to regulate its own behavior. I think it is a more constructive approach.

In my reflections, I have tried to avoid facile assumptions and clichés. From the political left and right we conveniently use “the media” as a modern-day whipping boy. We accuse it of bias, impropriety, ideology, commercialization and sensationalism. But is anyone, or any organization, on any point of the political and social spectrum, actually listening to external critique and changing behavior accordingly? According to what? Is there an ethical code or set of media standards valid for all? This is the million dollar question and until the media industry answers it in the affirmative, promulgates widely these universal standards and proposes practical ways for self-regulation, there is no hope of reversing what I consider to be a downward spiral of increasing social irresponsibility in every sector of mass communication.

The core of the problem is the unstated hypothesis in corporate America that ethics is merely the avoidance of “unacceptable behavior” that could jeopardize organizational or personal achievement. The news media — the medium I am most familiar with — is a great case study for this point. We are seeing the rapid evolution (devolution) of standards for what makes it to print or on the air because what used to be “unacceptable” is now our daily bread. The philosophical foundations for self-regulation within the news industry have corroded to such a degree that even the most basic tenets of journalistic righteousness (impartiality, honesty, accuracy, decency) are in long-term danger of at least temporary extinction.

An example of this degeneration is evident in changes to official journalistic standards for the newspaper industry. In 1922, editors of all of the major newspapers in the country met in Washington D.C. to establish a universal code of ethics. These executives owed their livelihood to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America which prohibits Congress from making any law that would abridge the freedom of speech or of the press. Even so, they didn’t see freedom of the press — the freedom of their own industry — as an absolute right. At the time, people still had the common sense to know individual rights, of people and organizations, are relative to the rights of others, have limits, and come with obligations. They also were convinced that the responsibility for regulation of their industry (the limiting of their freedom, so to speak) was their own responsibility, and not primarily of the government. They wanted self-regulation, not government interference, to be the standard bearer for journalistic ethics. With this common goal, they established the “Canons of Journalism” — rules for sincerity, truthfulness, accuracy, impartiality, fair play and decency.

Fifty years later, with the genesis of new media, including tabloid journalism, members of the American Association of Newspaper Editors revised the Canons of Journalism written by their predecessors and renamed it a “Statement of Principles.” Much of the content in the new document reflects the original canons of 1922, but there are three glaring changes which, I believe, reflect the beginning of the environment of moral anarchy in which the media now swim:

1) The 1922 canon on “Fair Play” declared, “A newspaper should not invade private rights or feelings without sure warrant of public right as distinguished from public curiosity.”
• In the revised 1975 standards this entire sentence is removed (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan?)

2) The 1922 canon on “Sincerity, Truthfulness, & Accuracy” stated, “Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles which they surmount.”
• No standard for headlines is given in the 1975 version, and the standard of “sincerity” is omitted completely.

3) The 1922 canon on “Decency” said, “A newspaper cannot escape conviction of insincerity if while professing high moral purpose it supplies incentives to base conduct, such as are to be found in details of crime and vice, publication of which is not demonstrably for the general good...”
• In the 1975 articles, there is no mention of a standard for “decency.”

With the collapse of philosophical foundations, these changes of 1975 should not surprise us. Nor should the changes we see today and the ones we may see in the near future, to the point of a complete abolition of journalistic and media ethics. If as a society we reject our natural sense of right and wrong, we end up all speaking different languages and abandoning the possibility of saying anything is objectively better than anything else.

But we can alter this negative trend. I believe a look back at the long tradition of Western ethics, in particular, the respect for the dignity of the human person and the responsibility of government, industry, and the individual to seek the “common good” of society are the pillars for reestablishing a universal ethical code for the media, and in particular for the world of news.

What does this mean in practice? I will explain this in more detail in the coming days.

God bless, Father Jonathan
E-mail Father Jonathan

P.S. I am sorry for the delay in the publication of this article ... the trip across the Atlantic makes meeting deadlines tough!

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