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Why are we not discussing media ethics?

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11th-Feb-2018       
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Patrick Lee Plaisance :
We know that companies and organisations can have a distinct "culture." A notorious example is Volkswagen, which for years relied on software that enabled their diesel cars to cheat on emissions tests. The global scandal has crippled the automaker, which has pled guilty to US fraud and conspiracy charges and paid more than $26 billion in fines. In his recent book on the scandal, writer Jack Ewing argues that the case "vividly shows how a dysfunctional corporate culture can threaten the existence of even the mightiest of corporations".
But do companies have a "moral" life? And how might we describe the moral agency of media?
Researchers are increasingly focused on these questions. And the answer to the first question appears to be "yes." For years, business researchers have studied the perceived "ethical climate" of organisations. And more recently, scholars have suggested that employees operate within a "moral ecology" that can and should be studied. Some are even promoting the concept of "organisational moral learning" to suggest how organisations, and not just the individuals within them, exhibit a process of moral maturation.
Usually, when we talk about moral judgement or ethical norms, we presume a focus on single people. And rightly so. Ethical deliberation is understood as rooted in the individual (or several identifiable people hashing it out together). But the idea of an organisation as an "ecology" - where one can study the "natural" setting of organisms and the interactions of features of the environment with everything living in it - has been gaining traction with business researchers. Some have started using an "ecological frame" to examine how the environment of a group of people can serve as a force that shapes their behaviour. Others have talked of an "organisational ecology" approach as a good way to study types of organisations.
One scholar uses the term "platform ecosystem" to explain how media outlets might harness social media.
Perhaps it is inevitable, then, that a shifting focus on organisations as environments has led to the burgeoning term "moral ecology."
The term draws our attention to the features of a single environment that serve to shape virtuous behaviour - either by cultivating or encouraging it, or thwarting it. This is not an entirely new idea. Philosopher Alasdair MacInyre argued that the values we find embedded in "practice" or lines of work can indicate the moral nature of communities.
And in 1988, business researchers Bart Victor and John Cullen claimed that "there is a growing belief that organisations are social actors responsible for the ethical or unethical behaviour of their employees". In 2002, Udai Pareek mapped out measures of eight ethics-related features that appear to make up an organisation's culture: openness, confrontation, trust, authenticity, pro-action, autonomy, collaboration, and experimentation.
My recent work with journalism and public relations exemplars also suggests that the moral ecology of a place needs to be better understood. What might be important factors in a newsroom, for example, that contribute to its moral ecology?
Does office and desk layouts encourage collaboration or hierarchical thinking? What is the effect of the television monitors over journalists' desks that stream real-time data about how many people are reading which stories and for how long? And for digital news sites, how does the reality of the 24-hour news cycle influence ethical standards?
How does journalistic standards of truth-telling and newsgathering sit with the constant press of opinion, trolling and vigilantism that thrives online? What kinds of gatekeeping behaviour have been abandoned? Retrenched? How does the pressure to cultivate an identifiable journalistic "voice" and brand online influence decisions about impartiality?
Media ethics scholars don't really have good answers to these types of questions - yet.

(Patrick Lee Plaisance is the Don W. Davis Professor of Ethics in the Bellisario College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University. Courtesy: Psychology Today).

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