Ethics And Freedom Of Speech

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Ethics and Freedom of Speech

Ethics and Freedom of Speech


Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin when one looks at the U.S. mass media system. But there often are major differences of opinion as to which side society most needs to have facing up. This is a problem that faces all mass communicators. It could be a journalist considering whether to exercise the freedom to destroy a reputation, preferably for a useful purpose. Or it could be the head of an advertising agency pondering the appropriate creativity limits in regard to an anti-abortion ad—one that could well offend sensibilities on both sides of the issue at the same time it catches the attention of millions of television viewers (Tura, 2010).

In both cases, is freedom to publish or broadcast the overriding value, or should the journalist and advertising executive take other factors into consideration and stop short of exercising the full freedom they have? Similar concerns have emerged in regard to cyberspace communication. To take just one example, how much freedom should online advertisers have in regard to behavioral targeting—the practice of sending ads to people based on the interests displayed in their Web-surfing history. Does the freedom to use new methods of advertising trump an individual's right of privacy—the “right to be let alone”?

To some degree, it's a chicken-and-egg situation. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the First Amendment to everyone, and that gives the mass media “ethical breathing room” to make their own decisions to be responsible or irresponsible. But if their decisions are seen as continually irresponsible, the result has often been public (or government) pressures to curtail media freedom in favor of requiring increased responsibility. This is a potential problem for the news media, but an existing one for the advertising and entertainment industries which are already regulated more than are news media.

These competing values are the crux of the arguments that follow. Each author agrees that both freedom and responsibility are important if the mass media are to function properly in society. Julianne H. Newton maintains that the media cannot be allowed to hide behind the First Amendment in order to justify irresponsible behavior. David Gordon argues that freedom of expression must be protected at almost any cost, regardless of whether the media are ethical or responsible (Capurro, 2005).

One other aspect of this dilemma also merits some consideration, although it is not discussed directly in the following material. That's the question of to whom or what the media should be responsible or accountable, assuming that some level of responsibility is expected. Is it to society as a whole—that is, to the general public? To specific audiences or subaudiences? To their owners and stockholders? To their peers, or perhaps to some general notion of “ethics” appropriate for the mass media? To more than one of these groups, or perhaps to some others as well? These questions are well worth further thought, as you ponder the different perspectives on the ...
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